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Why Gen Z’s new best friends should be the Boomers

Prepare yourselves: Generation Z, known for their familiarity with and attachment to technology, has entered the workforce. And they’ll need to be able to use that tech savvy in their professional lives.

According to LinkedIn’s Global Trends Report, 92% of HR professionals say that digital natives’ soft skills are as much a hiring requirement as hard skills — but “on the other hand,” Martin Van Der Werf, associate director for editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Society for Human Resource Management, “when colleges talk to businesses, what you hear is that students really need to be up-to-date technologically, have kept up with current skills and even have advanced skills.”

Today, many offices rely on a multitude of digital products to keep them efficient like customer relationship management platforms, digital marketing and graphic design software, just to name a few. Interpreting data analytics is fast becoming a normal task for even non-tech jobs, but Gen Z candidates often are fluent in the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint programs. Basic coding skills win big points in any sector, but it’s not part of general education in most high schools or colleges at this point.

Growing up behind screens creates gaps in Gen Z’s understanding of interpersonal skills, aka soft skills. Active listening demonstrates emotional intelligence, but you can’t truly listen with a phone in your hand. Time management skills combined with reactivity empowers and adaptability are just a few of the traits necessary to collaborate effectively with others. Problem-solving and critical thinking requires a proficiency in active listening, focus and time management. Body language is as powerful as written or verbal communication and the source of many misunderstandings in the workplace today.

Being able to train entry-level employees in all of that is going to be costly. Thankfully, there’s a solution that not only saves employers time and money, but hits all the feel-good buttons they need for their corporate social responsibility campaigns: cross-generational mutual mentoring. For the first time in history, we have four generations in the workplace, even five in some sectors and regions. Bringing age-related stereotyping under control and encouraging cross-generational mutual mentoring means that we could collectively profit from up to 75 years of wisdom, experience and skills.

Perhaps some people are irritated that many Baby boomers have no intention of fading quietly into retirement, making it even more ironic that they’re perfectly positioned to be the wing man who’s got Gen Z’s back. For a century, they’ve been deftly communicating in the workplace and surfing office politics. They master the evergreen hard skills like instantly churning out a three-year budget in Excel or a Powerpoint presentation that catches the CEO’s eye.

More often than not, workplace elders long to become cool again by osmosis, refreshing their mindsets and enjoying a few more sprints before the finish line. Cross-generational collaborations are also a great way for different age groups to learn new tools like data analytics together, melding their perspectives to create better ROI for their employers.

How to bring wisdom into the workplace effectively

In 2013, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the second largest boutique hotel brand in the U.S., was approached by the founders of a small startup called Airbnb. They wanted him to guide their transformation into the world’s leading hospitality brand by becoming their head of global hospitality and strategy. He was simultaneously excited and intimidated by working with a team half his age, and all technologists.

Last year, Conley summarized his learnings as a modern elder in his book, “Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.”

“When I joined Airbnb, there was not one person in the company who had a travel or hospitality industry background. I was brought in initially because of that knowledge. That was helpful, and my network helped. But ultimately, what I think I was able to offer them was this sense of emotional intelligence” Conley recounted in a Knowledge@Wharton podcast. “My process knowledge of how you get things done based upon understanding the underlying motivations of everyone at the table is something you learn as you get older, because emotional intelligence is something that can grow with time.”

Even if the value of cross-generational mutual mentoring isn’t splattered on the front pages of mainstream media, scientists and HR experts are making headway with Fortune 500 companies. They point out that the low unemployment rate makes mixed-age teams inevitable in the future of work, a hot topic that focuses on the impact automation technology like artificial intelligence and robotics will have in years to come.

But there are financial benefits, too.

Research shows that these collaborations drive productivity, reducing learning and development budgets, creating a powerful corporate social responsibility campaign, while increasing profits thanks to diversity of thought.

In the D.C. metro area, big companies like Lockheed Martin are actively promoting returnships to experienced workers who took long career breaks to care for family. These programs simultaneously reengage those with wisdom to share and build inclusivity organically, particularly for women.

Other programs in the area include Booz Allen Hamilton’s Return to Work, Amazon Web Services’ Returners’ Program, Deloitte Encore, and Paypal’s Recharge Program.

Some pointers on how to get Gen Z and Boomers to collab

  • Ease up on the stereotypes — Ageism is real and should be approached with the same thoughtfulness that we now have towards gender and race. The new intern might have a handful of piercings, but is eagerly saving for a house with a white picket fence. Your reserved coworker in orthopedic shoes could have very well been a key organizer of the Summer of Love. Exploring generational icons that defy stereotypes is a great way to find our commonalities. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are inspiration to all ages, but Cindy Gallop, is arguably unknown to Gen Zers — but shouldn’t be.
  • Listen more and speak less — Be patient and hear what your partner is saying beyond the words. Learn as much as you teach. Boomers can share valuable anecdotes about resilience and tenacity with younger coworkers, but at the same time, they’re eager for their younger coworkers to teach them as well.
  • Model lifelong learning — Being humble is the fastest way to acquire knowledge. A survey of over-50s showed that 46% of respondents were extremely or very interested in training in new workplace tools and systems. College might be over, but learning never is.
  • Get started by on-boarding someone considerably older than your team — If Fortune 500 companies are doing it, you should be too. Boomers and Generation X love gig work, especially if it’s in a fresh new setting. Explore returnships to capture modern elders who’ve taken a break from the workplace are looking to reintegrate and upskill fast.

Homogeneous workplaces are destructive to a company’s bottom line and sociological economy. Awareness of the power of inclusivity is at an all-time high, however these conversations often ignore the benefits of age diversity. Placing value on the contributions of just a few generations holds us back as individuals, as a community and even as a nation.

As digital natives, Gen Z faces unprecedented challenges in the future of work, as does their generational opposites, the Baby boomers. Surprisingly, they share similar worries, like financial security and self-esteem issues about their professional value. Cross-generational mutual mentoring is just a simple exchange of knowledge, but brings a new level of depth to workplace relationships as well as increased value to a company’s products and services.

OK Boomers, Gen Z is ready for you now.

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