Cross-Generational Mentorship: Why Age Should Be No Object

By EverwiseMay 26, 2016

You just started work at a fast-paced, growing company. You have some solid experience under your belt, you feel good about your career prospects, and you’re excited to network with people inside and outside the company.

You run into a rising star in your field at several networking events. You’re struck by the person’s ideas, connections, rocket-ship career trajectory, and willingness to talk to you about your new position and the things you hope to accomplish. You’re encouraged by how well you click and think, “This person could be a phenomenal mentor.”   

The only problem? They’re young. Maybe really young. Young enough that you’re baffled by how they got to where they are, as much as you’re dazzled by their talent and ability.

Would you still consider making the mentorship connection?

With Americans staying in the workforce longer, chances are you work with as many as five generations. Pew Research Center reports that nearly 32% of Americans aged 65 to 74 are still in the workforce.

Combine that with how frequently people change jobs and careers these days, and chances are you could end up being mentored by someone from a younger generation or mentoring someone from an older generation.

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Pew Research Center’s findings are consistent with a 2009 study — the American workforce is graying because older generations are staying in the labor force longer. Source: Pew Research Center

What’s the big deal with cross-generational mentorship?

Younger mentors are often treated as something out of the norm, that should make both younger mentor and older mentee uncomfortable, or as a strange situation to be prodded, examined and made into comedy. (See: Toby Maguire’s ad executive promoted over Dennis Quaid’s character in 2004’s In Good Company, or Robert DeNiro’s character reporting to Ann Hathaway’s fashion editor in the 2015 film, The Intern.)

We have an enduring cultural narrative where older, more experienced people impart wisdom to a younger, eager-eyed generation. Younger workers should be grateful for the advice and stay quiet until they, too, have enough experience to turn around and mentor the next generation.

In a world where younger generations lead companies changing the world, this narrative no longer plays out as expected. The stereotype damages the potential for different generations to learn enduring and important lessons from the experiences of others.

If you wouldn’t consider pursuing an otherwise ideal mentorship relationship like in the example story at the top, perhaps it’s time to change your perspective on what mentorship is and how a cross-generational mentorship experience can benefit both sides.

Why it makes sense to seek out multi-generational mentors

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By 2020, five generations will be represented in the workplace. Source: FutureWorkplace

If you feel like the world is changing at a breakneck pace, you’re not alone. The rise of technology and the need for all workers to constantly learn new skills and keep up is one of the best arguments for cultivating multi-generational mentorship.

In a ”reverse mentorship” relationship, more experienced employees and managers can benefit from the fresh perspective of younger peers and employees.

In the early part of her career, Yahoo Travel editor Jo Piazza’s mentorship experience mirrored the traditional model of “older generation passed down skills and knowledge to their younger counterparts.”

She details how her first mentor, Joanna Molloy of the New York Daily News showed her the ropes for journalism and life, and how Piazza committed to doing the same for her  how early in her career, she believed mentors needed to be older and wiser, like her first mentor, Joanna Molloy of the New York Daily News.

As Piazza progressed in her career, she learned that her younger assistant editors, native users of social media and other technology, could be a bountiful source of professional knowledge. No longer do people need to work for many years to gain the skills to contribute in a meaningful way. That “paradigm,” as Piazza writes, “has changed radically…as digital content has replaced print content.”

So how can you embrace cross-generational mentorship? Depending on which side of the equation you’re on, you could experience some tangible benefits if you’re open to these opportunities.

If you’re a more experienced manager or executive:

If you limit yourself to only learning from people older than you, you’ll be missing out on a lot of new ideas. As you progress in your career, you may find that your mentor pool shrinks considerably if you’re concentrated on finding only older and more experienced mentors.

Think about setting up a classic reverse mentorship relationship not only to benefit from your mentees, but to also develop the next generation of leadership in your field.

Millennials now represent the largest generation in the workforce. One of the keys to good leadership is building rapport with your direct reports and team members, so it stands to reason that if you’re a member of the Baby Boomer generation or a Generation X’er, you should be actively working to understand how Millennials work and what motivates them.

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Millennials passed Generation X in 2015 as the most populous generation in the workforce. Source: Pew Research Center

If you’re a younger manager or executive:

Wharton professor of management and coauthor of Managing the Older Worker Peter Cappelli tells younger managers to be on the lookout for possible tension if they’re managing people from older generations. Older workers could be wondering, “Why am I being bossed around by someone without a lot of experience?” at the same time that you’re wondering, “How do I do this?”

To make the most of your management relationships, make sure to build collaborative relationships and practice active listening. Seeing their ideas borne out and their perspectives respected can reassure older workers that you’re committed to working together.

You can also figure out what motivates each employee — a good lesson for management in general. While motivations and working styles may differ between generations (and life stages, regardless of age), taking the time to evaluate and study individual employees independent of their generation can give you more insights than painting them with a broad brush. Work to avoid reinforcing generation-based stereotypes.

If you’re mentoring an older employee outside of your management relationship, use the same ground rules as with any mentorship relationship:

  • Listen as much as you advise
  • Take genuine interest in their projects and career
  • Help them get the most out of your relationship by using objectives and key results (OKRs)
  • Let them lead the direction of your mentorship relationship, but guide them based on the OKRs they identify
  • Stay open to everything you could be learning from them as well

If you’re an employee from an older generation:

The first step to reap the benefits of a cross-generational career relationship could be to examine your own feelings and beliefs.

Older workers were disproportionately impacted by the recession and the swift rise of the technologies powering so many aspects of our work and personal lives. You may be feeling pressured to update your skills in unfamiliar disciplines. You may see your career path diverging sharply from what you expected or saw older generations modeling.

All of these are certainly reasons why you might feel some resentment toward a younger manager or potential mentor, but they’re also reasons to shake off the old narrative of what mentorship looks like.

Think carefully about if there’s anything inherently better about simply being older. If you seek out your mentors based on their accomplishments and ability to build genuine rapport with you, why should age matter? A younger mentor can provide the same benefits as an older mentor.

If you’re an employee from a younger generation:

The classic reverse mentorship narrative usually has you teaching your older and more experienced colleague or manager about Twitter and Facebook, but you can look beyond that cliche to unearth real opportunities.

When ad agency CEO Andrew Graff of Allen & Gerritsen participated in his company’s reverse mentoring program in 2010, he did learn “the latest smartphone apps” from mentee Eric Leist. Leist, half Graff’s age, took the opportunity to also share insight on the benefits of more flexible work environments and his thoughts on a new office layout.

As Graff told The Wall Street Journal, “There’s an assumption that if you’re senior, you have a lot to teach, and if you’re junior, you have a lot to learn, and I’m saying let’s challenge the status quo.”

Look for ways to move beyond the technological divide when talking with your mentor. This can include talking about your experience as a younger person in the industry and ways you could see improving specific areas.

Changing the narrative on cross-generational mentorship

Both the “younger manager supervises older employee and hilarity and generational jokes ensue” and the “crusty older manager needs to learn The Internets from younger employee” tropes fail to capture the reality and opportunity of cross-generational mentorship in today’s workplace.

What’s most important is that we all seek out mentors who practice good mentorship, regardless of their age, and seek to practice good mentorship ourselves at all stages of our careers.



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