When 70-year-old former executive Ben Whittaker starts his stint as an intern in a fast-growing e-commerce fashion startup, he is placed between two hoodied millennials hacking away at their laptops. Whittaker, played by Robert De Niro, is the protagonist of the movie “The Intern”: baby boomer meets digital natives on their home turf.

Sure enough, he starts out flabbergasted by all the gizmos of the digital age, the coded bantering of coworkers two generations younger and a tough-talking 30-something female founder he is supposed to assist. 

Soon it becomes obvious, however, that Ben has what his new colleagues are lacking: experience. He doesn’t even try to figure out how to tweak the algorithms, but he does know office politics. He is savvy in building relationships, calms down colleagues freaked out by deadlines, and is quickly seen as the rock everybody can depend on. He just knows how to play the game. 

As retirement ages are going up in many countries, more and more companies might have up to five generations in the workplace. It can by no means be taken for granted that those generations will work well together, which could potentially present issues both for companies and the employees themselves. In a study of 2,500 global executives, management professor Lynda Gratton from London Business School found that “almost a quarter rated ‘intergenerational cohesion’ as the most significant risk their company faced.”

But what is the magic formula that can help generations blend and turn differences into advantages instead of obstacles?

Talk and share

One approach lies in getting the generations to talk and share. Some companies, such as SAP or Deutsche Telekom, are using the tech-savvyiness of their youngest employees in “reverse mentoring” projects: millennials meet with top execs to mentor them on the latest developments in social media, cloud computing or computer algorithms. At SAP, a program called Reverse/Tandem Mentoring reflects the fact that advice is passed in both directions. A welcome side effect is getting the different generations to talk to each other on an equal footing. 

Learning from each other is one of the keys to successful collaboration. Generation Xers are said to often have lots of what psychology calls “crystallized intelligence”: the ability to use skills, knowledge and the huge stock of their lifelong experience. Some millennials can be champions of “fluid intelligence” or the capacity to deal with new problems in novel ways. If companies can make them work together instead of against each other, those core competencies of both age cohorts can complement each other perfectly. 

Showing appreciation for what each individual has to contribute is a key value in managing different generations. Another is to establish a culture of lifelong learning in the company.

This is equally important for all generations. Upskilling and continued learning will ensure older employees stay up-to-date on constantly evolving trends, while learning from more experienced colleagues gives millennials balance and grounding: younger employees may be more digitally savvy, but they lack their older colleagues’ broader experience and wisdom. Some companies are providing special sponsoring for their experienced staff: United Technology, the maker of Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines, encourages its employees to earn part-time degrees and pays up to $12,000 a year for tuition fees. Microsoft recently amended its criteria for appraising employees by adding the question whether they learned from others and subsequently used that knowledge. 

“Traditionalists,” 1928 – 1944, value authority and a top-down management approach. Had big influence on baby boomers

“Generation X,” 1965 – 1979, comfortable with authority, want to be listened to and will work as hard as needed

“Generation Y,” 1980 – 1995, begs to differ, respect must be earned, work-life balance even more important 

“Generation Z,” 1996 to present, just entering the workplace, many traits are still emerging

As defined by Lynda Gratton, London Business School

Experience to the fore

And to be sure, being digitally savvy isn’t always the be all and end all. In “The Intern,” the hoodied desk neighbors very quickly and successfully teach Ben Whittaker to use the digital devices. However, when their boss inadvertently fires off an angry email to her mother, none of the digital natives manages to retract the offensive missile. Baby boomer Whittaker finally has the solution: They race off together to the boss’s mother’s house, use the key under the flower pot to enter and delete the offensive email before the mother returns home and logs on to her computer – showing that, no matter how digital the world gets, good old-fashioned common sense, experience and wisdom will never go out of fashion. —  Margaret Heckel 

Published: September 2017

Images: Danae Diaz