Burning Question: Are Younger Workers Now the Mentors?

“Do older workers have more to teach younger workers about career success and satisfaction — or have times changed, and is it now the other way around?”

The other day, when having coffee with a client of mine in his late fifties, we got to talking about how much the job market has changed in recent decades and how a lot of the “old rules” no longer seem to apply as much in terms of getting ahead in the workplace.  We even chuckled ironically at the fact that while he, himself, is now struggling to find work after a very long and successful career to date, his twentysomething son is absolutely thriving, career-wise, and has started trying to give his father “helpful advice” about how to approach his job search and career management issues.

This exchange led me to start pondering the above “burning question” to throw out to everybody.

Looking back from a historical perspective, up until the last 15 years or so, I don’t think there’d be any argument that older workers have had the upper hand in terms of wisdom to pass along than their younger counterparts.  They’ve been the mentors.  The wizened elders.  The master craftsmen.  The seasoned veterans who have always, as a matter of course, taken starry-eyed youngsters under their wing and instructed them on the ways of the world — and how the dynamics of the job market, office politics, and corporate America really work.  They’ve taught them the importance of characteristics like loyalty, integrity, accountability, and cooperation and emphasized that these are the guiding principles that every aspiring professional should follow to achieve success, despite the temptations that come up to take risks and engage in ethically-ambiguous shortcuts along the way.

Have some of these bedrock principles changed, however?  Or have the methods of job hunting and career advancement been altered so severely by the “paradigm shift” of the Internet (and related factors) that Baby Boomers should actually now be seeking counsel from their Generation Y children, instead?

While on one hand I certainly hope there are still some timeless virtues out there and that the “life lessons” of experienced workers will continue to be seen as something of great value, I’ll also confess that some of the younger clients I deal with seem much more comfortable and well-adapted to today’s economic conditions.  For starters, as “digital natives” who grew up in the PC and Internet era, younger professionals tend to be much more fluent with modern technology, on average, especially when it comes to mobile phones (oops, devices!) and social media systems.  Secondly, they seem much more open to taking risks, asking for help, challenging the status quo, and not accepting “mediocrity” in a job or paying their dues for years solely in the hopes that a slightly better job might materialize, one day, in the form of a promotion.  And lastly, they seem infinitely more comfortable with the notion that THEY are in control of their career destiny, not their employer, and that switching jobs every year or two — or changing their career direction entirely — is no big deal.  It’s the way of the world these days and the thought of winding up with a 10+ year job tenure at some point (which used to be the average in America) is almost laughably archaic in this day and age.

So this question really has me thinking and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it, if any of you want to chime in.  Have we reached a tipping point where the world is now changing so rapidly that wisdom/age/experience has become more of a liability than an asset?  Where new college graduates today will be equally as surprised to find themselves behind the curve, in 10 or 20 years, as the next generation rolls into the workforce armed with a whole new set of “evolved” career skills, parameters, and philosophies?  And if there’s any truth behind this notion, whatsoever, is it time we all learned to start sucking up our pride and tapping into the wisdom of our juniors on a much more regular basis???

I haven’t made up my mind around any of this, but it’s got me thinking!


3 Responses to “Burning Question: Are Younger Workers Now the Mentors?”

  1. Matt, what a thoughtful question. I am not ready to give up on characteristics like loyalty, integrity, accountability, and cooperation and I think all older workers have long ago abandoned the thinking that hard work and dedication alone will earn us success. As business changed in the late 80s and early 90s we emerged from the era of our fathers into a very different world. Youth is often energetic and willing to tackle tough problems and if it can be combined with experience, and yes wisdom, that is a very powerful combination. Newer teaming approaches to work enable that blending.

  2. Will Ibershof May 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    You ask a great question. I just started a new job where I am working with a younger group of folks. These folks don’t have the experience of years of working yet they have the energy and drive that many companies are looking for these days. I feel the days were you were hired to do one set of tasks or hired to manage others has gone to the model where you job function is not as clearly defined and you are not managing folks but working on teams.
    So I have seen the older generation struggle with this while the younger generation adapts really well to this model. They don’t have any history of how things used to work.


  3. Matt – there’s no doubt that some of us “experienced” folks could use some help in the wisdom of our juniors.

    Technology usage aside – I feel I can hold my own in this area – the biggest thing I see with the younger workers compared to the older workers is a vibe. Work seems more fun for these younger workers, even though they experience much of the same frustrations with corporations as we all do.

    Part of this “vibe” might be due to the fact that they’ve been as this work thing < 5-7 years, and some of us have been at it, ahem, quite a big longer. The marathon can get old for older workers.

    Matt, I totally agree with you on younger workers asking for help, wanting mentoring, and generally being much more open when they are struggling with a thorny work issue. I find that extremely refreshing.


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