What Older Workers and Younger Workers Can Learn from Each Other

What Older Workers and Younger Workers Can Learn from Each Other

For the first time ever, four distinct generations share the workplace: the Silents (who are in their mid-60s on up), Baby Boomers (mid-40s to mid-60s), X-ers (mid-20s to mid-40s) and Millennials (the newest workers). The work and life experiences of each group are unique, but the divide is clearest between the two oldest generations and the two youngest.

As is always true, older workers can teach younger colleagues a thing or two. But education is a two-way street, and older workers can also learn from newer hires. Here are a few of those lessons.

What Older Workers Can Teach Younger Workers

  • Hard Times: “Younger workers didn’t go through the recession of the 1970s, and there are still people in the workplace who remember the Depression,” says Ben Dattner, an industrial and organizational psychologist and consultant. “They can pass along wisdom about economic cycles and provide a long-range view of things.” 

  • Loyalty: It may be out of fashion these days, but sticking with one employer or boss has its own rewards. Older workers know what it means to commit through thick and thin, Dattner says. It may not be easy to stay the course with one company -- especially when a quick job change may bring instant gratification, more pay and better perks -- but older workers know that some companies do take care of the employees who stay and take care of the company.

  • Experience: Whether it’s corporate policies, company politics or industry knowledge, older workers know the ropes, Dattner says. Most of them are happy to pass along what they know about people, jobs and success.

  • Interpersonal Skills: “Older workers are social animals [who are] very skilled at one-on-one relationships,” says consultant Chuck Underwood, author of The Generational Imperative: Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room. “All the technological knowledge of younger workers doesn’t compensate for their lack of interpersonal time.” Older workers can teach younger ones about basic workplace interpersonal skills such as common courtesy and team play.

  • Regrets: “Older workers usually have a good understanding of what they regret in their career choices,” says Penelope Trunk, blogger and author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. “People usually regret not what they did, but what they didn’t do. Older workers can use those regrets to pass along ideas on how to steer your career so it can be more fulfilling.”

  • Independence: “For years, younger workers have been taken care of by parents and their communities, but now they’re on their own,” Trunk says. “Older workers know how to depend on themselves. They can teach new workers that when they’re at work, they can’t count on anyone to take care of them.”

What Younger Workers Can Teach Older Workers

  • New Technology: This is the most obvious area. Whether it’s computers, PDAs or any other device with bits and bytes, chances are younger workers know how to use it. If they don’t, they’re comfortable learning how. And, like most people with a skill, they’re usually happy to pass on what they know.

  • Diversity: Younger workers come from diverse households and backgrounds. Their “wider perspectives” can help open older workers’ eyes to the changing world and workforce, Dattner says.

  • Job-Hopping: “Older workers have been told that only bad, disloyal or incompetent employees leave,” Trunk says. “In fact, today it’s the superstars who jump from job to job.” While older workers may regard career change as negative, young people understand that it can be fulfilling, energizing -- even life-changing. 

  • Risk Taking: “Younger workers are extremely entrepreneurial,” Underwood says. “They’re excellent out-of-the-box thinkers. That’s especially true compared to people who have spent their careers respecting corporate hierarchies and processes, not taking a lot of risks.” Though that was not necessarily bad in earlier times, “a new era demands a new way of thinking,” he says.

  • Balancing Work/Life Issues: “Older workers have done a horrible job with family and work-life balance issues,” Underwood says. “Younger workers are not career-driven. They can show older workers different attitudes and values.”

  • Fulfilling Dreams: “Older workers have had tons of responsibilities throughout their careers, but now that they’re without kids or mortgages, they’re free,” Trunk says. “They can go out and fulfill their dreams -- but they may not realize it. If they see how younger workers act and feel, they can follow their lead.”