What boomers and millennials can learn from each other

Different generations have a lot to teach each other about success, says author Bob Fisch — if they’re willing to keep an open mind.

What boomers and millennials can learn from each other

Bob Fisch says different generations have a lot to teach each other.

Everybody knows the stereotypes: Millennials are flighty, arrogant, and out to get Baby Boomers’ jobs. Boomers are behind the times, set in their ways, and can’t keep up with new technology. 

Trouble is, those notions are not only inaccurate, but they can do needless damage to companies and careers. “When we casually generalize about a diverse cross-section of unique individuals, we reduce real people to faceless statistics,” writes Bob Fisch in Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer. “I reject that.”

A retailing industry star, Fisch took his company Rue 21 from near-bankruptcy to a hot IPO, a billion-dollar-plus valuation, and 1,200 stores across the U.S. At every step of the way, he sought out mentors who could advise him—some of them much younger. “Even if you’re not totally new at your job,” he writes, “there’s always something to learn.”

Now 70 and out of the retailing game, Fisch still consults mentors of all ages. He’s put together what he calls an advisory board of nine Millennials, whose photos and brief bios are in the book, and who act as a sounding board for ideas and plans for his next career as a speaker and author. In return, he coaches them on their own work. “I teach them business,” says Fisch. “They teach me life.”

Fisch Tales is a handy guide for anyone who, like Fisch, doesn’t want to be stereotyped by the year when they happened to be born. “I don’t let myself be pigeonholed by some generic, cookie-cutter version of how a Baby Boomer is supposed to think,” he writes, adding that “when separate generations can learn to empathize with other generations, their shared values have a chance to benefit everybody.”

Monster asked Fisch five questions about what Boomers and Millennials can learn from one another.

Monster:  How does one go about finding a mentor from a different generation?

Fisch:  It can take some effort, because good mentors—of any age—don’t grow on trees. I’ve always gone out of my way to identify people whose work I admired. For Millennials, this is usually, but not always,  someone higher up.  For Boomers, it’s important to search out Millennials who show promise, who show the potential to be future leaders. A crucial trait to look for is an open mind. Both generations need to be willing to allow disagreement, or even encourage it.

Monster: What’s your advice to anyone mentoring someone in a different generation? Any mistakes to avoid?

Fisch:  Yes!  The biggest mistake is not listening to the other person. Because Boomers have longer experience, they sometimes have to stop themselves from basing their advice on that. For example, don’t assume that Millennials are interested in “paying their dues” and climbing the corporate ladder the way previous generations did. Listen to their goals, which might be quite different, and tailor your thoughts to those. That’s not to say that long experience doesn’t matter! Millennials do need to understand, for instance, how business works and why startups, glamorous as they might seem, don’t usually lead to instant wealth.

Monster: What are the main insights Boomers can gain from a Millennial mentor?

Fisch:  At Rue 21, most of my employees were in their 20s and 30s, and they brought a really valuable perspective on our markets and what our “digital native” customers wanted and expected. Millennials also can help you, as a Boomer, get out of your comfort zone and embrace tools like artificial intelligence and social media — areas where they, not you, are often the more experienced ones. This is why it’s essential to keep an open mind and be willing to explore unfamiliar ideas and new approaches. Sometimes it’s amazing what you can learn if you listen.

Monster: How about Millennials? What can they learn from Boomers that could help their own careers?

Fisch:  I’ve noticed two big things about many of the Millennials I’ve known. The first is that they’re often very creative and have great ideas, but they don’t always know the practical nuts and bolts of turning a concept into an actual business. That’s one thing Boomers, and Gen X too, can help with. And second, young people look at someone like Mark Zuckerberg and feel like failures if they’re not multi-millionaires before age 30. So sometimes they need a reality check. Startups are usually not a path to instant wealth and building a successful career most often takes a lot of patience. Don’t get discouraged too easily.

Monster: You describe in the book how helpful your Millennial advisory board has been to you. Should we all try to enlist a group of mentors, rather than just having one at a time?

Fisch:  I believe almost everyone could really benefit from having several mentors from all different generations. After all, no one person  — of any age — knows everything, and everyone’s point of view is worth hearing. This doesn’t have to be a formal group. We don’t often meet in person, but we get in touch by email, to share information and opinions, and ask questions. I take a lot of advice from them, especially about staying forward-looking. Now that everyone can expect to have five or six careers in a lifetime, there’s always a next chapter.

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Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?