It’s interesting being “of a certain age” in an industry (and a world, in some ways) that seems obsessed with youth culture and “how do we attract and retain recent college graduates?” I’m now in the strange (for me) world of being one of the oldest people in the company that employs me, and that’s been an adjustment in mindset for me. Sure, I’m in my 50s and so statistically that would likely be true almost anywhere, but as I interact almost every day with colleagues who aren’t that much older than my stepson or our friends’ kids, or my nieces and nephews now, I think it allows me more appreciation and less trepidation about it.
I find myself equally in awe of their self-awareness and intellect, frustrated by their complete certainty that they have everything all figured out, but “thanks anyway, Boomer,” or having to restrain myself from sounding like someone’s overprotective grandmother or angry old neighbor, reassuring them when things don’t go their way or yelling at the kids to get off my lawn or admonishing them with “this is why we can’t have nice things.”
One of the most profound and surprising lessons I’ve learned is how differently these younger people think and perceive the world from how I did at their age or especially now. The surprising part about it is that, for the most part, I don’t draw a line of right and wrong about those perceptions. I’m definitely capable of drawing some pretty bright lines and I still have some strong opinions about how things should be done. But in this case, I have dug in and tried to understand why these people, raised by people who grew up in the same general time and circumstances as I did, see the world so differently from the way I do.
When I think about the differences and talk to some of them about it, I realize a few things. This is not meant to be another article bemoaning the entitlement attitude of a generation or any of that. We (collectively, as a generation) have raised these people! If we want to cast aspersions on how they’ve turned out, then I’m sorry to say but we need look no further than the mirror, as horrifying as that may be to admit. There are, however, some fundamental shifts in our culture that have contributed to this, too. It’s easy to think “social media and the internet have changed everything.” It’s less easy (and more important) to dig in and explore some of the less obvious influencers on perspective and attitude.
Most things that are important to me at work just aren’t as important to them.
I couldn’t wait for my first job. Not my “life passion” or to “make a difference in the world,” although I hoped some day to do that. It was an unspoken truth growing up that work was something that I needed to do in order to make ends meet, buy a house, raise a family. If I found something for which I felt passion, so much the better. I know my parents told me that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. I also know that “you need to find your passion” or “find a job at a company with a culture that will allow you to follow your dreams” were never spoken. Work was something that hopefully I would enjoy, and hopefully I’d build a nice career but above all, work would provide security that would allow me to build an independent life. Any time I changed jobs, my parents would think, “well, I sure hope she knows what she’s doing. She’s leaving a job with good pay, good benefits, and it’s a good company. I hope it’s not a case of the grass always being greener, but I guess she’ll find out.” The questions I was asked were, “is the pay better? Does the job have benefits? Is there opportunity for advancement?” Even today, those are the main questions I ask myself and the way I judge my own position. Sure, there are other considerations, but none as important as the salary, the benefits, and if I feel respected and valued. Sometimes in the corporate effort to attract and retain younger employees I have to try a little harder to feel like the experience I bring to the table (along with my gray hair) is respected, but I know it is.
I’ve been asked to serve as a mentor to young women through a mentoring program outside of work, as well as inside. To my surprise, their motivations are almost completely different than mine were at their age. Work might be something they have to do in order to pay their bills, of course, but finding a culture with a good work-life balance, a more flexible schedule and generous vacation policy are often far more important to them than their compensation or their benefits. This was astounding to me, but when I think about it, it makes sense. They grew up being told to “find their passion.” Many times they grew up learning (from our generation, by the way) that work took their parents away from time with them. Work caused their parents stress. Work preoccupied their parents even on family vacations. They don’t want that to happen to them. They also grew up, thanks to us, hearing how super fantastic they were! So, if their work environment doesn’t give them that same supportive atmosphere, a lot of them start to look elsewhere fast.
Knowing things might make you smart, but it doesn’t make you wise.
These young people have grown up with information literally at their fingertips. When I had a question about how something worked or about an event in history, I had to make an effort to find the answer in our encyclopedias at home, or at the library. Or, importantly, I would find someone who I thought knew more than I did about the topic and, if I were lucky, they would engage me and teach me. If I wanted to learn more, they would point me toward other sources of information and if I really wanted to know more, I had to make an effort to learn it.
Whether it’s my stepkids or these colleagues, the answers to whatever factual questions they have about anything are right there, in their smartphones. “What happened during Watergate?” “Why did the planes hit the towers on 9/11?” “What is the metric equivalent of a quart?” “What is cream of tartar?” “What event was the catalyst for the US entering World War II?” (Whether the sources they turn to for that information completely align with what I know to be true is another topic for another post.) The point is, they can find all the answers to almost anything at their literal fingertips. I’m not sure if that creates more or less intellectual curiosity in them; I think that depends on the person. But it definitely eliminates not only the need but the opportunity to engage with elders or experts and learn what someone who has actually lived something learned or knows about it. More importantly, there’s much less need to acknowledge someone other than themselves as an “expert” in anything.
As I work with these people, and as they watch how I engage with my customers and how I am able to build relationships with people who may have little or nothing at all in common with me if our Facebook likes or Twitter feeds were compared, I think they do come to eventually understand that in life and in business, it’s not enough to be a master of information. It also takes a certain amount of life experience and emotional intelligence to know how or even when to share that information in a way that makes another party want to hear it from you. Some people get it, and others don’t. That’s not a generational thing. But young people today never “have to” look too far outside themselves for information. It’s also ingrained in them thanks to my generation that everything they do, think and say is AWESOME! Helping them to understand that the subtle art of reading a room can be far more valuable than reading a company website the evening before a meeting can sometimes be pretty frustrating, but it’s so fulfilling. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received is, “I have so much to learn from you.” These young people know more than I do about almost everything, except what can only be learned from the good old School of Hard Knocks.
I think I owe it to myself and to the younger people in my life to work on correcting my instinct to try to preach about “how it used to be” and “what I would do if I were you.” Instead, if I really want to be of service, I will work on two things: being conscious of the example I’m setting, whether I think anyone is paying attention or not, and learning to engage with them in a way that draws them in, rather than boxes them out.
Look, there are still some hard and fasts for me, and I won’t be changing my opinions or moral compass to suit what people tell me is a different time. But if I really want to engage to be understood, then first I have to understand. And I can’t understand what I don’t think I need to learn.
These colleagues help keep me young!
Let’s face it, my days of being right on top of every fashion trend or cool new saying are in the rear view mirror for sure. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it when I see it, though! I know exactly what kind of shoes are cool. I know that the big legged, cuffed, plaid pants that I thought were so awesome in junior high are cool again (though I’ll leave the actual wearing of them to the 20-somethings.) I know how to pay people using Venmo! I know how to buy my coffee with an app! I can even make a meme! I owe all of those little pleasures to the next generation. And, once they’ve had a chance to get to know me, they usually decide I’ve got something to show them, too.