I’d like to kick off this post with a recent experience I had at a professional conference.
As I sat in the convention center ballroom with thousands of others, the keynote speaker launched into her talk about design thinking.
The crowd was engaged instantly, as she shared fascinating stories that underscored why design thinking matters in today’s disruptive business environment.
At this point, this was becoming my favorite session of the entire three-day conference.
Until this happened…
The focus shifted to generations and the image below flashed on the screen. My jaw dropped, though I managed to recover fast enough to capture this image with my smart phone.
At the bottom left is Malia Obama, who at age 19 and now a student at Harvard, represented Generation Z. The next photo of a young couple taking selfies with their baby at the beach represented the Millennials, who the speaker added are now breeding. The audience chuckled, as the speaker moved on to the dapper Anderson Cooper, who at age 50, represented GenX.
But it’s that last photo at the bottom right that troubled me. A photo where everyone appears to have shopped for wardrobe at a bowling shirt factory. Holy cow, that’s the photo she selected to represent the Boomer generation?
The fact that this otherwise stellar speaker started her career in the fashion industry made this choice even more stinging.
In a mere ten-year span from age 50 to 60, is there some chemical released in our brains where we lose all sense of fashion and style? Where we suddenly transform from Brooks Brother suits and strategic thinking to oversized shirts and early-bird specials?
Some of you may be thinking, come on Donna – that’s not such a big deal. But little by little, as these subtle strokes are shared and not challenged, perceptions shift. It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. Over time, they conjure up Boomer personas that are not just off the mark, but tough to shake, especially in the workplace.
This is NOT us.
How Generational Thinking Clouds Our Vision
There are characteristics and tendencies to consider as we examine each generation. Shared experiences and big moments that shape over-arching values and beliefs.
But sweeping and inaccurate stereotypes are extremely hazardous, not just for the individuals they’re intended to represent, but for society at large. More importantly, they prevent us from having more fruitful, inter-generational dialogue.
Boomers aren’t the only ones struggling with this generational typecasting. I’ve heard peers make snarky remarks about the younger generations.
“They have their noses in their phones and they’re clueless about how to have face-to-face conversations.” I’m the first to push back on these remarks. I appreciate how Milennials and Gen Z are challenging us to revisit time-honored norms and conventional thinking. Some of my best ideas were sparked by Next Gen conversations.
As for this tendency to dismiss Boomers too soon, consider this:
- The average age for Supreme Court justices is 69. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and shows no signs of retiring.
- At age 61, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida — without a shark cage!
- According to the 2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, “Older adults are a growing segment of the U.S. entrepreneurial population. Individuals ages 55-64 have gone from making up 14.8 percent of new entrepreneurs in 1996 to 25.5 percent of all new entrepreneurs in 2016.” (source)
Trust me, many of us (not all) have no intentions of exiting from career endeavors anytime soon. With that said, a more graceful and gradual downshift from the 50+ hour work week may be in order. Ultimately, this not-yet-mainstream, downshift path will help elders in our communities to stay engaged and contribute valuable insights over a longer span of time.
Thanks to greater awareness and commitment to health and wellness, people are living much longer. Not too long ago, retirement spanned maybe a decade. Now for many, this phase could run thirty years or more. Stopping at age 65 no longer makes sense.
Today’s 60-somethings and 70-somethings are not only more vibrant, but many are more purpose-driven. They want to make a difference in this world, but sometimes they’re not invited to join these conversations.
Tapping the Collective Wisdom of Every Generation
No single generation has all the answers, but when they come together and engage in respectful dialogue and even debate, amazing things happen. Before long, walls come tumbling down and breakthrough solutions start to emerge.
There’s much talk about diversity and inclusion these days, but I suspect age may be slipping off some radar screens. Make no mistake, ageism may be illegal, but it still persists, even among those who see themselves as forward leaning about these issues.
In a recent conversation with a university leader, I applauded their efforts around diversity and inclusion. Then added, there’s one group missing from much of what I read about these initiatives. His eyebrows raised, as I suggested: “Where are your vintage alumni? The folks who started their careers here back in the 70s and 80s? Might they have valuable insights to contribute?”
Championing An Inter-Generational Movement
In today’s world, there’s no shortage of complex problems that need to be solved. But to make any headway on these issues, it will take the collective wisdom of all generations coming together for meaningful collaboration and solutions discovery. Those are the richer and more rewarding conversations I’m striving to ignite.
How about you? Does this inter-generational crusade sound appealing?
Please add your comments here OR drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org), because “None of us is as smart as all of us.”