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?