Over the past few years, much has been made of the “great shift change,” as baby boomers retire in increasing numbers. Most members of Generation X are now at mid-career, but in terms of numbers they are largely underrepresented, due to some peculiarities of hiring over the past 25 years or so.
The result is a gap where millennials are replacing boomers, and it would be difficult to find two generations with more differences. There have been dozens of articles and studies on the topic, so I am not going to quote statistics. Consider instead a few observations from someone who has been watching the generations collide, is highly invested in understanding how it works, and has a significant stake in making sure millennials and boomers work well together.
Given my age, I am a late boomer, so I believe I know how we tend to think. We are the people who insist on understanding everything in great detail. Some of this is because of our early exposure to computer technology. We remember the days of monochrome CRTs and DOS-based programs, and we remember just how hard it was to master and work with these nascent technologies. Call us the “pre-user-friendly generation.” We have lived with and without these technical advances, and, as appalling as it may seem to some millennials, we can still solve problems with pen and paper if necessary.
Millennials are different, as we have been told many times. They are tech natives and trust technology implicitly. It often seems they cannot function without their smartphones, headphones, and apps—but they really do not care how these devices work behind the scenes as long as they serve their purpose.
These two generations are ideally suited for one of the most effective training methods, namely mentoring: a one-on-one relationship where a boomer senior engineer builds an intentional connection with a millennial engineer for two-way knowledge transfer. Yes, the experienced engineer helps teach the youngster how to approach his or her job, but the benefit is greater when the two participants, particularly the boomer, can see past the traditional teacher/student relationship. True collaboration is the key to success.
When we boomers were in our 20s, we did not always trust our elders, or at least we did not think we had much to learn from them. Such is not the case with most millennials. They truly appreciate the opportunity to talk with an experienced person and will soak up knowledge—provided the boomer is not condescending, demeaning, or rude. The relationship has to be one where the mentor and mentee approach each other with mutual respect. Discussions must not be a teacher-to-student lecture, but instead need to be two engineers engaging as equals.
The boomer mentor should guide the younger engineer to look at situations more holistically and dig for a deeper level of understanding, just as the mentor has done through his or her career. Such engagement cannot be forced. “Why are you doing it this way?” has to be replaced with, “Tell me how and why you created this solution” and, “What problem were you trying to solve?”
For successful knowledge transfer, both parties need to have open minds. The younger engineer should be interested in hearing suggestions when offered with respect by someone who believes members of this new generation can be very creative, as indeed they often are, particularly when they are applying the latest technology to design innovative solutions.
Such discussions should not happen in the boomer’s office—instead these are two peers talking across a conference room, break room table, or at happy hour. The mentor should ask questions and offer ideas when appropriate, with the knowledge that he or she should often simply say, “This looks great, and I like what you have done.” There may be nothing to correct.
The millennial will listen and absorb knowledge. The mentor should explain a project in the same way, “Here’s what I’m working on. I’m doing it this way because…What do you think?” As the mentor explains his or her thought process, the millennial will begin to understand new ways to approach a challenge. Deeper knowledge will develop, and maybe even friendship.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of mentoring is the stability it brings to an organization when done effectively. Millennials are not known for staying in the same job for a long time, but they may very well develop loyalty to a company where they find these kinds of strong relationships.