Stop Arguing About Generations and Just Go to Lunch Already
Check it: This is a video AND content post, so you can choose how to consume my ideas.
I say no one's right until you hash it out over a meal.
Last week, while keynoting West Virginia's Children's Policy Day Conference, I had the opportunity to dine with Karen, a 60-something nonprofit leader. As we sat and talked, she asked me what I'd be saying in my afternoon workshop, "The Fountain of Youth: How to Communicate with the Next Generation." I shared that while I would be briefly touching on some of the tools that might be useful, such as social networks, I'd really use the time to talk more broadly about Generation Y and how they communicate, what they're looking for in good nonprofit appeals, and why it's crucial that nonprofits begin to engage this demographic for the sake of their own survival.
She then said, "Let me ask you this…" and I knew where she was going.
She began to rattle off some of the more negative stereotypes of Generation Y – that we can't commit, that we're entitled and self-absorbed, and that we're unwilling to "pay dues."
Immediately, a million blog posts I've read ran through my mind. But before I could respond, she continued to talk about her workplace and how she was having difficulty managing some of her Gen Y employees. She shared about her son, who still hasn't finished school, but is doing what he loves as an actor at 26.
And before I could rebut her initial claims, I saw what was happening: she was a frustrated boomer, trying to be a great manager and parent, and really was asking for help. Her humanness far outweighed her boomer-ness. She didn't want blog posts to read to prove her wrong; she wanted concrete suggestions to genuinely improve her situation.
I think a lot of the inter-generational agreements are really just that: one person trying desperately to understand another. But, because it's so easy to get defensive when confronted or critiqued, we resort to generational name calling and stereotyping, tossing gasoline on the fire with all-encompassing blog posts and cries of "They just don’t get it."
And everyone and their organizations is the worse for it, as we fold our arms in disgust and pout as long as we can stand.
So here's what I suggest: the next time a Y or an X or a Boomer tells you that another generation is something or the other, ask them, "Did you discover that over lunch?"
I'm willing to bet that very few generational experts have had a meal with a member of another generation in quite some time. And I don't mean some kind of group lunch or corporate breakroom encounter. I mean a lunch where you can speak your mind and ask questions, much like Karen and I did over hotel chicken and mediocre chocolate cake.
She asked me what I should tell her in order to help her motivate her son to go back to college. She asked me if she did the right thing by hiring an X'er as a coach/mentor' for all of her Gen Y staff, so they no longer report directly to her, but to someone else who gets them a little better.
And I asked her what she looks for in good Gen Y job candidates, and what her expectations are with a new hire. I asked her what it's like to be a lifer in the nonprofit world in this economy.
We had some 'aha' moments, a few laughs, and a moment of clarity.
It's hard to have lunch on the Internet, but it's easy to say something. And our talk is expensive, because it usually comes at the high price of intergenerational conflict that stalls the forward momentum of our work. I hope that all of our HTML and blog networks don't get in the way of the human side of our generational intricacies.
So, the next time you hear someone say that Gen Y is so this, or they say that Boomers are so that, ask them if they've had lunch with the group they're calling out. Because until you're willing to break bread with someone different from you, you shouldn’t be allowed to say anything.