Engaging Across Generations: Five Lessons Learned

by Karen Shirer, Ph.D


Several years ago, a colleague hired six new educators to work on an emerging public health issue. All six hires were “millennials,” individuals born between 1981 and 1995. They were the first millennials that had been hired into his organizations.

Needless to say, my colleague experienced rising tensions between the millennials and the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who had worked a long time in the organization. Neither generational group was prepared to work with the other in a team environment. Nor was my colleague prepared to address the conflicts and tensions that arose. In the end, most of the newly hired educators left the organization and an educator of the baby boomer generation lodged an age discrimination complaint.

I thought of my colleague as I viewed Part II of the webinar Engaging Across Generations Part II: Tools and Techniques. This blog post describes the key lessons I learned that would have benefited my colleague as a boomer bringing on the first millennial hires. Recently, a blog on Part I of the Engaging Across Generations: Unique Mindsets webinar was published and you can view both the webinar and read the blog. Facilitators for both webinars were University of Minnesota Extension Educators Lisa Hinz and Brian Fredrickson. .
The United States currently has five generations that make up adulthood and can be found in families, workplaces and communities. Before talking about what I learned about engaging across two generations, here is a recap of all five.

Traditionalists were born before 1946 and are now 72 years and older.
Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, and are ages 53 to 71 years of age now (this is where my colleague resides)
GenXers were born from 1965 through 1980, and are currently ages 37 to 52 years.
GenY or Millennials were born between 1981 and 1995, and are currently aged 22 to 36 years (the approximate ages of my colleague’s new employees)
GenZ individuals were born after 1996, with the older folks currently 21 years of age.

So, what were the five lessons I learned from the Engaging Across Generations Part II: Tools and Techniques webinar that would have helped my colleague as he brought on six new educators of the millennial generation into a current group of educators from the boomer generation?

Lesson #1: Know and Appreciate the Strengths of Each Generation

Millennials make up one-third of the US population. They tend to be civically engaged, tech-able, hopeful, carefully weigh all the options when making decisions, and value collective action. They hold a strong team ethic, a value for collective action and an openness to adaptation.
Boomers have political leverage and clout, and are good networkers. They value equality, hard work, being team players, and challenging the status quo. Throughout their lives, boomers possessed a drive to learn and become self-actualized.

Both of these lists show that there are commonalities but also differences. These differences can be leveraged. Recently, I began using social media, which for millennials is second nature, and my millennial colleagues were very helpful. As a boomer, I love to network and quickly learned that social media is the new networking. If my colleague knew each group’s strengths, he might have been better able to leverage them to develop the work team.

Lesson #2: Understand the tensions that could occur

Research shows that 2/3rds of things with which we disagree with another on are things that we will never agree on. So it helps to understand that disagreement and conflict are normal between co-workers and in teams. Look for where there is agreement and show respect for differences of values and viewpoints.

There are larger societal tensions looming between these two generations due to major demographic shifts. For example, millennials will bear the burden of supporting the safety net for boomers as they retire and grow older. Right now, these tensions are not as evident but they will come and as a society, we all need to prepare for them now.

Lesson #3: Strengthen your communication skills

With the respect garnered in the second lesson, honing one’s communication skills would be very helpful. Some key tips include: ask questions, don’t assume or tell; use multiple communication avenues, including social media; and don’t take things personally. Even more important, think carefully about the other person and tailor the message to him or her. Consider what factors motivate him or her while at the same time be open to learning from the other person and to teaching the other person.

Lesson #4: Promote reciprocal mentoring

Reciprocal mentoring basically means setting up a mentoring relationship where the millennial is mentoring the boomer (like my social media experience) and the boomer mentors the millennial. The focus of mentoring varies based on each other’s strengths.

Some advice for millennials mentoring boomers involves being tactful, listening and not blaming, showing warmth, and letting the boomer talk about their work and experiences. Boomers need to listen, give structure, be an advocate, and share themselves with millennials.

Lesson #5: Be humble and open to change

One area that boomers report problems is when millennials do not value their experience and work. As expected, this can be rich ground for conflict. With my boomer status, I have often cringed when a millennial “schools” me on how to do certain things for which I had done a large amount of work. I’ve learned to bite my tongue, ask questions, listen and encourage. I need a good dose of humility to remember that I do not have it all figured out and neither do my millennial colleagues.

Do you want to learn more? Here are three steps you can take today:

1. View Part II of the webinar, Engaging across Generations, titled “Tools and Techniques.”

2. Learn more about reciprocal mentoring with L. D. Parks book, Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners. Chapter 8, The Yoda Factor, describes the process.

3. Participate in the October 31, 2017 webinar sponsored by MFLN Family Transitions & Personal Finance on Financial Planning for Different Generations: Touchstones, Tasks & Teaching Strategies.

If you haven’t done so already, view Part 1 of the Engaging Across Generations: Unique Mindsets webinar , review the resources highlighted in the webinar, including Jennifer Deal’s book, and read my blog about the Generations I webinar. Note, additional webinar handouts(Generations: Who Are They? and Engaging Across Generations Part I) are located on the webinar event page under the “Event Materials” located at the bottom of the page.

Karen Shirer is a member of the Military Families Learning Network Family Transitions Team and the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.

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