That time I helped my mom with a Google Doc

By Charlie Rhomberg
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Getting past generational conflict with reasonable communication

Earlier this year, I called my dad to tell him I was leaving my corporate job to try my hand at writing full-time.

He was stunned.

He couldn’t fathom how I’d decided to leave a stable career and venture into the unknown. The pain of The Great Recession hadn’t yet faded from his memory. Although he was spared, many of his peers faced tough times back in ‘08.

I struggled to come to grips with his rebuke of my career decision. I thought I’d taken all the right steps — talked to mentors, saved up an emergency fund and considered my options for nearly a year. I grew resentful at his inability to understand the new world of work, and dismissed him as a dinosaur. “You’re living in the past, old man!”

This squabble strained our relationship for about a month, until I decided to call him up and talk it through. I explained that, since I valued his feedback, his assumption that I was making a terrible choice hurt a lot. At one point he’d called me nuts. He was surprised that I was still hanging on to that conversation — in his mind, he was just fulfilling his role as my dad/mentor/coach, just as my late grandpa had been to him. Even though he disagreed with my choice, he explained, he respected my decision-making and supported me fully as I took my next step.

I’d been replaying that initial conversation in my head for weeks, questioning if I was being reckless after all. But after just a 10-minute phone call, my animosity vanished.

While that dispute is water under the bridge at this point, I still regret how little effort I put into understanding where he was coming from. Eventually, I concluded that the bulk of our disconnect arose from the canyon that separates his Generation X from my Generation Z.

When he was my age, remote work was non-existent, and many parents in his neighborhood stayed with their employers for decades. I’d been fortunate to land a good job at a great company right out of college, and from his vantage point, I didn’t know how lucky I was. Decades of stable employment, capped with a gold watch at retirement, were being thrown out the window to follow a whim.

Since then, I’ve become fascinated with how intergenerational communication became so contemptuous, the most notorious of which being the cultural clash between Millennials and Baby Boomers. You’d think both of these cohorts are in middle school with how they talk to each other. “OK Boomer” became a popular social media retort to the “lazy, entitled Millennial” moniker given to that age group as they entered the workforce.

The reality is that different generations will always be annoyed at, shocked by and occasionally disgusted with each other’s decisions. Society changes at a breakneck pace, and by the time one generation has adult children, their children’s experience is entirely different from their own at that age.

As readers of this magazine know all too well, family-owned companies aren’t exempt from these conflicts. In many circumstances, quarrels between generations are accentuated when family relations and business are thrown into the mix.

However, recent research points to several ways that we can all begin to actually hear what the other party is saying, rather than waiting for the opportunity to admonish the younger gen’s naivete or the older gen’s stubbornness.

A good starting point is realizing how much the two biggest generations have in common.

Boomers and Millennials — more similar than they’d care to admit?

These two groups are the biggest generations in American history and made significant cultural impacts as they entered adulthood. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Boomers made up a majority of the labor force by 1989, when the cohort was between their mid-20sand mid-40s (Jessica R Sincavage, “The labor force and unemployment: three generations of change,”Monthly Labor Review, June 2004). The size of this generation, combined with their high labor force participation rate, factored into their workforce dominance at a relatively young age.

The Millennial generation is currently between 25 and 40 years old and recently passed Generation X to become the largest group in the workforce today (Naz Beheshti, “The clash of the Baby Boomers and Millennials: How can we all get along?” Forbes, Nov. 29, 2018). By 2025, they’re expected to make up a staggering three quarters of working people across the globe.

As both generations broadly entered adulthood (Boomers in the 1970s, Millennials in the 2010s), older people scrambled to understand their desires and grievances. Each group recognized their power in numbers and threw their weight around where they could. Cultural flashpoints like Woodstock and the Vietnam War protests were fueled by younger Boomers and older Silent Generation members challenging the values held by their parents.

Similarly, Millennials have made their voices heard on a number of issues. Their views on work have upended the status quo — loyalty to one company feels to them like an out-of-date notion, and their sights are set on receiving meaning, autonomy, and flexibility from their employers. Outside of work, they’ve rallied for social reforms, just as Boomers did. The Black Lives Matter movement, push for LGBTQ+ acceptance and celebration of diversity were largely ignited by Millennial distaste of the current state of affairs.

Notice a theme here? While the specifics of these massive social changes may be different, the broad similarities are obvious. As they entered adulthood, both generations wanted to make their mark in creating a more peaceful and just world, even if their vision of getting there differed.

Instead of grumbling about the other’s ignorance, each generation should recognize that early adulthood is a time to express bold visions for improving the world. By the time Millennials are nearing retirement age, I’d bet that the next generation entering the workforce will drive them crazy with new sets of values and behaviors.

Maybe we just need to cut each other some slack and recognize that young adults will always be full of energy for big changes, while older people will be wary of upsetting the status quo. If either side completely got their way, we’d be worse off. A balance between the two is good for society.

Obviously, better communication between age groups would improve their relations. But how can companies make that happen?

Lend an ear to younger employees through reverse mentoring and shadow boards

I roll my eyes when my mom asks me how to create a Google Doc, and she does the same when I ask how to file my taxes. Clearly, we have a lot to learn from each other.

Similar eye-rolls happen every day in offices across the country, and leaders are looking for solutions.

“Reverse mentoring” is a growing trend that promises to build effective working relationships between older and younger employees. Traditional mentorship, in which an older employee shows the ropes to a younger one, is a great way to facilitate intergenerational communication, but can also make junior workers feel voiceless.

With reverse mentoring, the hierarchy gets flipped. A younger employee is assigned an older employee who shares their expertise on a variety of subjects, such as social media and software programs. This mentorship can unlock a range of benefits, including better collaboration between employee age groups and a confidence boost in Millennial employees that can improve retention.

In a study of reverse mentoring programs, Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell of IMD found that they “provide Millennials with the transparency and recognition that they’re seeking from management” (Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell: “Why reverse mentoring works and how to do it right,” Harvard Business Review, Oct. 3, 2019). But that wasn’t all — these kinds of programs also helped older workers learn digital skills and improved management’s grasp on minority issues. With Millennials and Gen Z set to dominate the workforce in the coming decade, an understanding of what makes these generations tick is essential for companies in all industries.

Shadow boards are another popular tactic for engaging younger workers. Despite the ominous name, these boards are simply a collection of young people across a company who meet with senior management on a regular basis. After talking with several companies that implemented this arrangement, Jordan and Sorell found that the main benefit was to “leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to” (Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell, “Why you should create a ‘shadow board’ of younger employees,” Harvard Business Review, June 4, 2019). Iconic brands like Prada and Gucci found that their shadow boards helped them reverse shrinking margins and adapt to new trends like online influencing.

The main driver behind the effectiveness of both these programs is a willingness to listen to the opinions of younger workers. While Boomers may yearn for the days when they put their heads down and did as they were told, companies that want to compete and retain talent in the 2020s will need to keep their ears open to what their junior employees are thinking.

Generational differences will always exist, and that should be a good thing

I’ll admit that for a long time, I assumed all Boomers were selfish and ruining the planet for future generations. My Gen Z bias has made it hard for me to fully shake this notion, but I’ve recognized it’s way too broad of a generalization.

Undoubtedly, there are things that Boomers should have done differently, along with the hundreds of generations before them. And, sorry to break it to you Millennials, but your grandkids will be railing on you someday, just as you did.

If we’re ever going to tone down this merry-go-round of outrage, we’ll have to put down our pitchforks and lend an ear to each other. Boomers wield a lot of power in politics and business and can hold space for junior employees through programs like shadow boards and reverse mentoring. Millennials are digital natives with an innate understanding of technology that Boomers lack, and can use their expertise to help get older workers up to speed.

Wherever you work, be it a family business, non-profit, public company, or something else, try giving the opposite generation a break. They probably want the same things in life as you do — a tight-knit community, meaning at work, and respect.

Generational disagreements will always exist, since life stage experiences decades apart will always be wildly different. But that should be a good thing, as we can all learn from each other. 

Charlie Rhomberg is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation member of Crescent Electric.

Audio Sound Duration: 
January/ February 2023

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