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Generational Blind Spots

There is always interest in how a new generation is different from previous ones. The evidence I’ve seen is that the differences are not as great as they are usually portrayed. However, there are consistent differences between younger and older workers, and it’s useful for everyone to be alert to these enduring differences.


The blind spots of younger workers

Here are some beliefs younger workers should be cautious about:

  • “Old folks don’t get it.” Young workers sometimes think that the old folks just don’t get technology, or how the world has changed, or what needs to be done. It’s better to start with the assumption that there’s at least a 50/50 chance that the old folk do get it and the young folk are missing some insight the old folk have.

  • “This is a brand-new idea”. There are few new ideas in management. Something that a young worker newly thought up may be old news to older workers. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, it’s just that the young worker shouldn’t be surprised if people are not as excited about the “new” idea as they are.

  • “We need to blow this process up.” Blowing up a process is easy, replacing it with something better is hard. Just because a process has visible drawbacks doesn’t mean that a better option is available. If older workers are protective of a process, it may be because they know that there is no reliable way to improve it.

The blind spots of older workers

Here are some beliefs older workers should be cautious about:

  • “This has worked for me for years; I don’t need to change.” Whether it’s learning to use a new technology or changing how one attracts customers or some other process, just because something has worked for years doesn’t mean it is still the best approach. In particular, older workers shouldn’t think that they can just ignore some changes. At one time adopting a smartphone was a personal choice, now, if you’re not able to use that technology, you will hinder your own performance and quite possibly the people around you.

  • “We tried this before, it won’t work.” Just as youth overestimate their ability to drive positive change, older workers may underestimate the potential of innovations younger workers suggest. There is a lot to be said for letting younger workers pilot some new ways of doing things both as a way to help them develop and as a way to discover improvements.

  • “All young people understand technology.” It’s simply not true that all young workers understand technology. They may need a lot of support and training when a new technology is introduced.

How to close the blind spots

There is a natural tendency for people to interact mainly with people in a similar age group. This can exacerbate blind spots rather than close them. If a group of older workers gets together complaining about “kids nowadays” that doesn’t help the generations learn from each other.

The most direct method for closing the gap is what’s often called reciprocal mentoring. A younger worker is matched with an older worker for mentoring, but there is an explicit directive that the older worker is meant to draw insight from the younger worker as well.

More broadly managers can simply look for opportunities to mix different generations. Have young product managers meet old customers, send old managers to participate in campus recruiting, ensure multiple generations are part of teams.

Let’s stop talking about if generations are different, what’s wrong with the young, and what’s wrong with the old. Let’s instead recognize that each generation has blind spots and use the simple mechanism of getting them to work and talk together to enhance their vision.


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