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Talkin’ ’bout my…um, your generation: this is how the young and the old work really well together

I am in my mid 30s and therefore do not, by definition, belong to the so-called Digital Natives. But even though, digital tools are a natural part of my day. Half of my life is on Trello, I write about topics revolving around the digital transformation and I work remotely with different constellations of people and with a wide variety of sharing tools. I consider myself to be one of the “young and wild”, the digital heads and the like – and then I sit on the metro amongst a group of 12-year-olds and think to myself: I don’t have a clue what they are talking about. ‘Have you seen Lisa’s meme on TikTok – so f*#$% LIT!’ While I inconspicuously search for “Tick Tock” on Ecosia, I catch myself thinking ‘When I was your age, I was playing football outside with my friends, instead of wasting so much time on a smartphone.’ 

I had always sworn to myself never to say things like “When I was your age…”. Suddenly I feel very old. Not even 20 years separate me from these youngsters. Fifty years separate them from my parents, of which one is still working. I ask myself: How can people, that have been socialized in two completely different worlds, work together? In one company? Towards a common goal?

How would it feel if one of those three teenies suddenly tried to explain to me how the world or a communication strategy works? If they would tell me that Trello is completely antiquated? That my content is really “super nice” and that I can therefore be in charge of the intranet moving forward, because Curly – the new girl – will now be writing the blog?

Innovation is inspired by diversity of perspectives and experiences!

A senior manager in a company that I used to work for always said: “Getting old is nothing for sissies”. I think she was right. Also, and in particular, with regard to aging companies. The combination of digital transformation and demographic development requires a great deal of courage and openness from them. They have to find ways for people of very different generations to work well together. The combination of experience-based knowledge of the senior employees and the mindset and digital know-how of the younger generation holds enormous potential. Uncovering this potential requires that everyone approach one another in an unbiased, appreciative and curious manner. This doesn’t always happen automatically. Without consciously reflecting on their own prejudices, older employees quickly succumb to the impulse to treat the younger colleagues the same as they were treated at their age or to translate their own experiences one-to-one into expectations (see also the “playing football outside” example up top). On the other hand, the younger colleagues usually doubt any digital competence of their 50 plus counterparts. If we let ourselves be guided by these thoughts, we are promoting a homogeneous environment in which we surround ourselves exclusively with people who are similar to us. But innovation is inspired by diversity of perspectives and experiences! And diversity of age and life phase as well.

We all feel uncertainty about a future that cannot be planned.

It is to be expected that there will be friction. How wonderful! Because friction generates energy and that energy can be used by companies to develop further, provided that they create space for reflection and exchange between employees of different ages. This space can emerge digitally and continue in an analog realm. Using smart tools, colleagues can get together specifically for a generational exchange. At the same time, managers should offer formats for encounters that let us break down our prejudices, encourage understanding for others and motivate us to learn from each other. Because the big changes of our time affect us all, young and old, and we all feel uncertainty about a future that cannot be planned. A team in which diverse experiences and broad knowledge are in constant motion not only makes us creative, it also provides us with security. Nobody can or must know everything. But we can all learn something from someone else. And that is the point!

Because knowledge obtained through experience is not easy to google but is exclusively in the minds and hearts of colleagues.

There are many great methods that promote collaboration between people of different generations in times of constant change and are easy to implement. A small selection:

1. Storytelling

Older colleagues often possess a wealth of experience, that cannot be conveniently broken down to fit into a pitch format or a how-to manual. It should rather be acknowledged as stories about dealing with resistance, with difficult situations, with new challenges in the face of a busy professional life – and which are worth hearing. Storytelling lends these stories a structure and gives employees the opportunity to transport them. This is not only fun for the narrator and gives him confirmation, but also reaches the ears of the younger generation. Because knowledge obtained through experience is not easy to google but is exclusively in the minds and hearts of colleagues.

2. Mentoring

Cross-generational mentoring duos are a great opportunity to meet at eye-level, to ask unfiltered questions and to learn from one another in a climate of mutual trust. Traditional mentoring methods assume that experienced employees pass on their knowledge to the young employees. But the knowledge transfer should go both ways. In “reverse mentoring”, the digital natives show older generations how they think and work and use new technologies.

3. Project Work

The best project teams are the ones that form on their own, based on the interests and knowledge of the individuals and on their wish to get involved.

This is how bottom-up project initiation works:

  1.     An employee has a great idea for a project concerning an important topic or current challenge in the company.
  2.     The employee adds his or her idea to the (digital) agenda and searches for the best suitable supporters within the company.
  3.     A Matching Tool automatically informs the colleagues that possess the required skills for the project. They can then join the project team with the click of a button. Age? Irrelevant.

4. Strengthen strengths

Instead of trying to fix our weaknesses, it is much more effective to concentrate on our strengths and develop them further. This approach relieves pressure and frustration and motivates us to make the best possible contribution to the benefit of the company. It does not, however, replace the willingness to learn new things. Nevertheless, it is ok to say: “You are better at that than me. Should we exchange tasks?” Bit by bit, this creates an awareness of the strengths of the other (older and younger) colleagues.

5. Slack Time

Slack Time is something like corporate leisure time. On one fixed day per month, employees have “free time” to work on anything that they are interested in that is also relevant to the company – whether it be the development of a game or the redesign of an office space. A brief presentation of what he or she will be working on, gives everyone the chance to find supporters for their own project. This informal collaboration often creates exciting conversations. And as a byproduct, everyone gets to know their colleagues from another side, see their interests and talents.

And maybe after work you will meet on the football field. Just like back in the days.

About the author: Katja is mid 30, editor at Tandemploy and obviously not a Digital Native. Her notebook? – Made of paper. Her favorite gadget? – A Polaroid. Her first social network? – UBoot.de (well…). She works 100% remotely, mostly in a coworking space of her choice (it’s very likely she choses the coworking space she’s founded herself a few years ago, though). 

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