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The Innovative Workplace

Young and old

Taking advantage of differences

By Don Phin

Quick! Answer this question: Would you rather have a 25-year-old as your IT manager or a 60-year old? Or this one: Would you rather have a 55-year-old running your multi-million dollar insurance agency or a 35-year-old?

Here is an edited version of some age-driven comments about the work environment found on a recent blog discussion:

"I'm almost 30, work closely with someone who is in her 50s. She is truly the picture of someone who is not comfortable with technology, does everything the 'old' way and questions whippersnappers like me who do things the way we young people do. She also cannot multi-task and often refuses to do so."

"I'm 24 and about 10-15 years younger than anyone here. Not having anything in common with anyone at work though sucks more than them not knowing how to navigate their way through a computer."

"I think these people need to take a class on how to use a computer, programs, etc. Both my bosses are in their upper 50s and aren't proficient in technology. There are a lot of community colleges that offer classes at a very low cost. Some of those classes specialize in helping older adults."

"I know people over 60 that would not take a cell phone if you gave it to them. The problem is that, when such people get into management, it can retard a company really fast. While other companies are adopting new equipment and using new methods of efficiency, often older companies become uncompetitive because they tend to take an attitude of, 'Well, that is the way we have always done things,' and they find themselves being left behind."

"Guess my line of work is different in the way that technology enhances performance in a minimal way. We take care of our old guys and gals; they have more valuable experience."

"Wow, I feel like an antique right about now. . . . Do you know how much people like me and with years and years of experience teach those with less experience? I can go to class and learn technology, if I want to, but I can't go to class and pick up the 15 years of business experience that I have. And yes, I'm a crazy boss that dares to have an assistant that handles my paperwork because frankly I choose not to spend my time doing it. It's not that I don't know how, but you get to a point where you can hire folks to handle nonsense like that for you. Oh yeah, and I've trained dozens of people over my years in business and many of them make a boatload of money, and some more than I, and some have come back and thanked me for all I taught them."

"Quit complaining and start paying attention to the value the years of experience many of us 'old folks' bring to the table. Sometimes we're actually in the senior positions because we have the experience and knowledge a position such as that requires. Knowledge that doesn't include something like updating a Web site. We also don't tend to fear being around people that are smarter or more experienced than we are."

"It will happen to us one day, folks. The tables will turn."

Can you feel the tension yet?

Approximately every 10 to 15 years a new generation of workers emerges. The oldest among us are the Traditionalists (pre-1946); then there are the Baby Boomers (1946-1964); Generation X (1965-1981); and Millennials (aka Generation Y, Echo Boom, Tech Gen, etc.) (1982-1990). Of course, these are all artificial distinctions. Any time we engage in stereotyping, it can cause adverse consequences. However, I will speak from my experiences that there are generational differences and similarities that affect both the work experience and bottom line.

Above is a table I constructed that attempts to lay out some of the factors affecting the cross-generational differences. It is an approximation at best.

The four levels of relationships

Over the years, I have taught in discrimination training that we deal with each other at four levels: fear, tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional love. Each of these emotional states is impacted by the factors set forth above.

What other fears might we have about each other? Most fear is born out of ignorance. How can we educate ourselves to ameliorate those fears? How can we facilitate an engaging dialogue about new and old at our organizations? How do we understand that all of us have more in common than we do that is different? For example, many senior leaders have fears/concerns about the work ethic of the Millennials. Is that justified? Are there any facts to support it? Likewise many Millennials and Gen Xers value life/balance as much if not more than career success. Are they right to be concerned about/fear senior employees that exhibit what they perceive to be work/life imbalance?

Tolerance is the second level where we deal with one another. In a sense, we'll do you no harm because you're different from us. This is essentially what the law mandates. In these rapidly changing times, age and experience seem to have less significance in the marketplace, generating age discrimination claims. Fact is, a company shall do no harm because of one's age but does not have to tolerate a lack of performance or lack of engagement into an emerging culture. Senior employees can't be viewed as pulling up the rear. They have to set the example of constant improvement—a willingness to be open to new ideas.

The third level of engagement is that of acceptance. We don't just tolerate one another's differences; we're accepting of them. I don't know about you, but I like working around younger employees. They are full of energy and great ideas. When I was young, I liked working around older employees. They had wisdom and experience they could share. How do we create a culture that is accepting of one another's differences? In my mind, that is a leadership issue. The notion of acceptance starts at the top.

The final frontier is unconditional love—like Jesus or the Buddha preached. While we may never get there, we are encouraged to try. An important distinction: We don't have to have unconditional relationships.

Within this framework what can we do at our agencies to bridge these gaps in a way that generates work satisfaction and productivity? Here are some ideas to play with:

1. Don't let senior employees turn into dinosaurs. Require them to learn new technologies, even if they don't want to.

2. Invite younger employees to contribute their ideas. It's their "out of the box" perspective you are after.

3. Create mentoring and "reverse mentoring" programs—you can pair up young and senior employees to help where needed. The senior employee can share the wisdom gained from experience. In turn, the younger employee can share how to better use technology.

4. Conduct workshops—similar to the mentoring but on a group basis. For example, the person most proficient in using Outlook can conduct a company workshop. The senior leader most proficient in explaining financial dynamics can give that workshop.

5. Create multi-generational teams. Many times senior executives end up isolated from the young and newer workers. Big mistake. Young workers expect to be included in important conversations and they can provide plenty of fresh insight.

6. Share stories. People love stories. It's a great way to connect. Make it fun. Create some basic guidelines (e.g., no profanity, sex or religion) and subject (e.g., the client from hell or the best client ever, etc.).

7. Delegate as much work as possible to the young and newer employees. That will help them grow in their careers and allow senior employees to spend valuable time working "on" the business, not just in it.

8. Survey to find out concerns. Once identified, create multi-generational teams to address the three greatest concerns.

9. Talk about common interests. Sports, food, community, kids etc. When you have a company party, mingle. Don't allow the generations to separate themselves.

10. Acknowledge the different viewpoints and needs. View these distinctions as a source of strength, not conflict.

Intergenerational differences have always been with us and always will be. The starting point is to acknowledge the challenge and do something about it.

The author

Don Phin, Esq. is president of the HR That Works program used as a value-added by agencies nationwide. He can be contacted at


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