Mentoring and the Generation Gap

My favorite observation I’ve seen about the generation gap between Boomers and Millennials was on a sidewalk blackboard outside a coffee shop. It read, “Millennials. Walking around like they rent the place.”

Cross mentoring is a great way for older workers to teach and learn from younger workers

By Paul Deffenbaugh

Deffenbaugh Headshot 1

Many in my generation are fond of pointing out how the younger generation has it so easy and they don’t know the value of hard work. I hear this often when contractors lament the availability of quality workers. Young people, on the other hand, point to the difficulties they face getting started, such as the price of college. It was, after all, a lot less expensive for Boomers to go to college.

My experience of Millennials is that they are hardworking, entrepreneurial and excited about their prospects. They are chagrined at the difficulties they face, which are distinctly different from the difficulties Boomers faced.

In one respect, though, the generation gap now is eerily similar to the generation gap between the Boomers of the 1960s and their parents of the World War II generation. In fact, if you listen, you can hear the language being spouted by Boomers today is almost exactly the same that their parents used about them. “They are lazy.” “They don’t know how good they have it.” “They don’t know the value of real work.”

The biggest difference may be that the World War II generation spent an awful lot of mind space on the length of their children’s hair. In today’s world of face tattoos, dramatic piercings and ear gauges, that concern almost seems quaint.

My point is that there have always been generational gaps and differences between older generations and younger generations. Boomers resent Millennials’ lack of appreciation for work. Millennials resent Boomers’ refusal to step out of the way and make room for the next generation.

But within that conflict there is opportunity for business owners. Having a generationally diverse workforce can bring a variety of attitudes and aptitudes to your company that can help it excel. The problem is unlocking that opportunity in a way that improves your company and benefits all of your employees.

One of the answers is cross mentoring. We think of mentoring as the older generation taking the younger under its wing and showing it the ways of the world. Giving them the value of their well-earned insight and experience. But the truth is we Boomers have a lot to learn from the younger generation as well. And I don’t just mean on the technology front. Sure, I appreciate help identifying a valuable app and direction in using it efficiently, but I’m talking about something different.

Experienced minds solve problems quickly based on their learned knowledge. You can see the solution because you’ve seen the problem dozens of times. Young minds don’t have that asset, but they do bring a freshness of thinking, a new approach to problems that can open up unexplored solutions. There is a reason why most of the huge advances in human technology, art and science tend to come from young minds. Some of Einstein’s greatest discoveries were done before he was 30. Great novelists leap onto the stage in their 20s, and while they may have a lifetime of success, it is their early work that redefines the art.

Young minds can think more adeptly and quickly. Older minds take more time to resolve issues, but through experience can get to conclusions faster. Pairing older workers with younger workers and getting them to share their specific areas of expertise can help improve your company. The young person gets mentored with additional experience. The older person gets mentored with new ways of thinking and new approaches.

Yes, there’s a generation gap. There has always been a generation gap. But that gap can be a key to helping your staff continuously improve and advance.