Posts Tagged ‘Intergenerational issues’

On being young

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Pew released a report last week about aging and the generation gap, which struck me as very timely in that I’d been thinking recently about what it means to be young and a professional (or, I guess, a young professional). Initially spurring me to consider this topic were a series of random (and, taken alone, fairly trivial) incidents over the past few weeks:

  1. Meeting in person for the first time a group of colleagues who I’d had fairly extensive email and phone contact with, to have one of them exclaim, “But you’re so young!”
  2. Participating in a series of meetings with other young colleagues who, when senior members of our organizations were present, acted one way, but when it was just young people present, acted in a completely different manner (a manner I wouldn’t call unprofessional but certainly more casual, more presumptuous, more buddy-buddy, all of which in my mind ended up making them less effective).
  3. Hearing stories about high-level colleagues calling their subordinates “Mini-Me” or “Junior.”
  4. Hearing several colleagues call into question the worth of another colleague’s decisions and opinion simply because that person is of a fairly young age.

What do these anecdotes add up to? Maybe not much, as they could be interpreted in a number of ways. A colleague exclaiming “You’re so young!” could mean that they perceive the good work you do as akin to the caliber of someone older and more experienced; or it could mean that they’ll now take your work with a grain of salt, as they can’t possibly trust someone so young to be accurate and authoritative. If superiors call you Mini-Me or Junior, it could mean that they have a great affection for you and see you as a protege; or maybe it means they really see you as inferior. Perhaps older colleagues really believe younger colleagues should be doubted simply because of their age; or maybe they’re just blowing off steam and venting in good-natured way. Any of these interpretations are possible, I suppose.

But before we go further, let’s consider a few of the findings from the Pew survey. For example:

Survey respondents ages 18 to 29 believe that the average person becomes old at age 60. Middle-aged respondents put the threshold closer to 70, and respondents ages 65 and above say that the average person does not become old until turning 74.


In a 1969 Gallup Poll, 74% of respondents said there was a generation gap, with the phrase defined in the survey question as “a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today.” When the same question was asked a decade later, in 1979, by CBS and The New York Times, just 60% perceived a generation gap.

But in perhaps the single most intriguing finding in this new Pew Research survey, the share that say there is a generation gap has spiked to 79% — despite the fact that there have been few overt generational conflicts in recent times of the sort that roiled the 1960s. It could be that the phrase now means something different, and less confrontational, than it did at the height of the counterculture’s defiant challenges to the establishment 40 years ago. Whatever the current understanding of the term “generation gap,” roughly equal shares of young, middle-aged and older respondents in the new survey agree that such a gap exists. The most common explanation offered by respondents of all ages has to do with differences in morality, values and work ethic. Relatively few cite differences in political outlook or in uses of technology.

All of this (the Pew results plus my little anecdotes and their possible interpretations) tells us two things: 1) people of different ages often approach situations in different ways and have different views of the world; and 2) while the “generation gap” of old (in the culture war sense of the term) may be fading away, a definite gap still exists between the generations. So what does all of this mean for the young professional trying to chart a successful international career?

For me it’s always been interesting how others (often older colleagues) characterize what young professionals bring to the table in terms of skills, and conversely what young professionals would like to be recognized as bringing to the table. For example: while our technological savvy is often touted, we’d rather be recognized for the innovative ideas we bring to the discussion. While our energy and enthusiasm is often called the best thing about our presence, we’d rather focus on the results that energy and enthusiasm brought about.

On the flip side, how we see ourselves isn’t necessarily a view shared by those around us. We might consider ourselves confident and eager to serve the cause in any and all ways, while older colleagues might interpret this as brashness and arrogance. We might see our willingness to dive in deep and tackle heady challenges in new ways as innovative and self-starting, whereas more experiences colleagues might view such behavior as obstinate, boneheaded, and indicative of our refusal to listen and learn.

So which side is right? Neither, or perhaps both. To me it’s the responsibility of a young professional to neither squelch their drive and enthusiasm, nor brush aside the wisdom and criticism of older, more experience colleagues. It’s the responsibility of the young professional to, say, accept and appreciate recognition of his technological dexterity while also politely and professionally ensuring his other skills and ideas shine through. It’s the responsibility of the young professional to bring her enthusiasm to the table and suggest innovative ways to tackle problems as they come—but also be cognizant of the fact that she doesn’t know everything and that it can only help her to slow down, listen to the experience of her colleagues, and accept critique and criticism of her ideas as they come.

I guess what it means to be a young professional is to consider what the above four anecdotes mean, but ultimately not get upset about them. It’s to recognize that we might view someone who is 60 as “old,” while someone who is 60 certainly doesn’t consider himself old at all. It’s to accept and embrace the fact that, as Sherry has often said, I have a lot to learn from her as an experienced, older colleague—but she can learn a lot from me too.

Who still uses a phone?

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

My boss Michael emailed me yesterday saying he’d gotten the scoop on a bit of information that we’d been waiting to hear. I responded immediately saying, “Great to hear. Where’d you see that, out of curiosity?” I was, of course, expecting him to forward me a web link with the relevant information, a link that I’d somehow not yet come across. But his response, I’ll admit, kind of surprised me:

An old fashioned instrument—the telephone. Spoke with an old contact who filled me in.

I guess not everything comes streaming in via my Google reader. I responded: “Holy crap. I couldn’t even get my phone to work this morning…” (which was true—for whatever reason I was having a heckuva time getting my phone to give me an outside line). Michael felt vindicated in his “old-fashioned” approach:

There’s still a place for us old folks…

I agreed:

There’s still a lot to learn for us young ‘uns…

[The fact that this whole exchange took place via email despite the fact that we sit in adjoining offices not seven feet away calls for an entirely separate discussion....]

New-ish book: Working Across Generations

Friday, April 10th, 2009

Mark Rebstock at NCIV pointed me towards a new-ish book (published in October 2008, around the same time as Working World), Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership by Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim, and Robby Rodriguez. Mark describes the book in his Nonprofit Best Practices feature in NCIV’s newsletter as “a comprehensive look at the leadership and generational shifts taking place in the nonprofit sector.” I haven’t picked it up yet, but hope to at an event featuring the authors coming up next week.

In the meantime, though, a twenty page excerpt is available on the book’s website, as is Frances, Helen, and Robby’s Leadership Top 5:

“Current nonprofit leaders often ask us what they can do now to work with Gen X and Y leaders. Here are our top 5 suggestions:

  1. Build clear steps for advancement in your organization. Newer generations recognize that they need to create pathways within the sector for moving up in their organizations or to positions of leadership elsewhere. Make skills-building trainings available to staff as they both prepare for and begin new positions within an organization. For smaller organizations without room for growth, consider ways that younger staff can be a part of decision-making or use their skills in other organizations in the sector.
    [Ed. note: Agreed---one of the points of my previous screed about salaries and career advancement in nonprofits.]
  2. Remember it’s more than technology. We often hear boomer leaders talk about the benefit of younger staff members’ technological savvy. Then we hear from newer leaders that they are valued for skills but not their ideas. Remember that Generation X and millennials may (or may not) have great skills for developing web sites to social networking, but they also want to contribute their ideas.
    [Ed. note: We might more easily understand the utility of an RSS feed, but that doesn't make us tech gurus. I was prompted today to install a new "script" for my email and was utterly defeated.]
  3. Provide mentoring opportunities. Mentors and networks provide Generation Xers and millennials with information about jobs, the connections they need to get their foot in the door, and the legitimacy they need with others. Offer connections to trusted colleagues in the field who can provide staff with a sense of perspective and history, advice, contacts and influence. And mentoring is rarely one way; older leaders gain insight and information by listening to their younger colleagues.
    [Ed. note: This book and this blog---need I say more?]
  4. Create room for more voices. Newer generations looking for more voice in organizations has led to a revival of interest in more inclusive decision-making models. Examine how decisions are currently made and consider ways to institute places where decision-making can be open to more voices. Consider reducing the amount of time spent discussing decisions and instead distribute leadership throughout the organization, giving staff members more authority and responsibility for running their own programs.
    [Ed. note: Sherry always says the best way to get someone interested in your cause is to invite him or her to speak. The same holds true here---invite us to lead.]
  5. Lead together. Younger leaders are often more interested in sharing leadership, building more on the experiences of some of the movement organizations of the 1960s and 1970s than on current business operations. Whereas boomer leadership-sharing often resulted in power struggles, Generation Xers and millennials are frequently recognized for their comfort with working in teams. Boards should consider phasing in co-directors, leadership teams, or other variations of sharing the top responsibility in your organization.
    [Ed. note: We love doing things in groups.]