Mentoring: Generation to Generation
by Dr. Michael Wolter
Program Director and Associate Professor of Management and Leadership
In my Advanced Mentoring Workshop at Goodwin University, one of the most intensely discussed topics among participants is generational differences in mentor pairings, which can create significant speedbumps in building a mentoring relationship.
Comments like, “Back in my day…” from older individuals or “You don’t understand what it’s like these days, compared to when you grew up” from younger ones are quite common between mentor and mentee. Is there truth in these statements? Yes, absolutely, but if we understand what shaped each generation we can provide ourselves the building blocks for strengthening the rapport between mentors and mentees and eventually find commonality between the shared experiences.
This generation was born prior to 1946. They survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. Through hard work and determination, they learned to survive during extremely difficult and trying times. They are familiar with hardship, value consistency, and are disciplined and respectful of authority. Traditionalists were conditioned to save money in case of emergencies. During the Depression, many lost their investments, homes, and other life assets, so they tend not to trust banks. This generation learned to save until they had the funds purchase an item — the ideas of debt and credit were not foundational elements for them. Matures/Traditionalists may hold strong beef on “moral” issues such as divorce. The values of their generation include:
- “Hard work is the key to success.”
- “The common good above all”
- “Authority deserves respect.”
The sheer number of individuals born between the years 1946 and 1964 resulted in a phenomenal impact on national and global politics, economics, society, and culture. If every current Baby Boomer were to retire today, there would not be enough able-bodied workers in the other generations to fill the vacuum.
This generation widely reshaped beliefs and concepts ranging from divorce to consumer debt to war. As young students, Baby Boomers participated in missile drills, under the threat looming nuclear attack — the resulting anxiety remaining with them for years to come.
Still, Baby Boomers tend toward optimism, strive for convenience, are process oriented, and are willing to assume debt in order to enjoy the benefits of their hard work now rather than later.
This generation was born between the years 1965 and 1980. Though sandwiched between two large generations, Gen Xers have had the most profound impact on technological developments. This generation saw the birth of Apple, Microsoft, and personal computers. Generation X witnessed controversy among long-standing institutions on global and national levels and experienced milestones including anti-war protests, Watergate, excessive inflation, massive layoffs, the Challenger tragedy, the energy crisis, Three Mile Island, AIDS, and the EXXON Valdez. This climate created substantial mistrust toward government, business, leadership, established organizations, institutions, and traditions, and set the stage for Gen Xers to develop rebellious, “stick it to the man” tendencies. The concept of job security is a myth to this generation and as a consequence, they “work to live,” putting very little stock in future stability.
This generation, born between 1981 and 1994, has also been tagged the Net Generation, Generation Y, Generation Why?, Nexters, the Nintendo Generation, and the Internet Generation. Like Baby Boomers, this is a large generation, but unlike prior generations, Millennials have always had extensive media exposure at their fingertips encouraging them to challenge any tradition, institution, value, or individual in their lives.
Millennials are a very smart group with their raw intelligence (IQ) scoring 15 points higher than any generation in the last 50 years. They can be perceived as — and present as — impatient, resulting, perhaps, from the instant gratification associated with their access to the Internet. Millennials expect immediate results from technology that is portable so they are not tied down to one location, such as smartphones, tablets, smart watches, laptops, and gaming systems.
Did you know that the average Millennial will have played 10,000 hours of video games by age 18? Resulting positives include hand-eye coordination, strategy and planning skills, and team coordination with multiplayer games. One of the down sides is the idea of “restarting” levels. When you die in a video game, you restart at that level until you succeed, leading Millennials to think they can have do-overs for all their goals; in the real world, do-overs are not guaranteed.
Millennials have witnessed and had Internet access to numerous tragedies such as Sandy Hook, 9/11, and the Colorado movie shooting. Similar to their Baby Boomer predecessors, Millennials have had lock down and active shooter drills while in school, causing a high level of fear and anxiety.
What should older generations keep in mind when mentoring Millennials to share tribal knowledge of their business, skill, or trade?
Millennials have a constant need for ongoing learning in all aspects of their life and quickly feel stagnant when there is a lull in stimulation. This carries over to the high expectations Millennials have for their employers. They expect new goals to be established once the previous ones have been achieved. They have a desire for immediate responsibility, fostered by the messaging provided to them growing up that they are special and deserve an award or trophy for every endeavor. The concept of “paying their dues” is lost on this generation.
Millennials grew up in a world with play dates, sports, and other activities that created a very structured lifestyle during childhood. This has fostered a strong desire for this continued structure in their professional and personal adult lives. This generation wants constant leadership and guidance. They want high interaction from their supervisors and mentors, similar to what they received from their parents and educators. They need the self-assuredness, can-do attitude, and the constant reaffirmation of their positive personal self-image.
Leaders, supervisors, and mentors for Millennials should be prepared for:
- High expectations
- Desire for balance and flexibility
- High touch and interaction
Leaders, supervisors, and mentors for Millennials should not:
- Expect them to pay their dues
- Throw a wet blanket on their enthusiasm
- Expect them to be comfortable with conflict/personal interaction in a face to face manner. Technology has provided an “out” for this much-needed interpersonal skill.
This generation was born after 1994. Generation Z is the most socially-networked generation in history. They grew up with the War on Terror and Climate Change being constant topics in the media/conversation. This generation is now experiencing economic crisis with student loan debt.
While Millennials came of age during the technological boom of the Internet and constant connectivity of social-media, Generation Z has always had this part of their daily routine. This connectivity has had both positive and negative consequences for this generation. These include both behaviors for their generation when they were youth, attitudes, and their overall lifestyle. Since this generation is relatively young and still defining itself, it is hard to know if some of these elements are long lasting characteristics of the generation or just moot point as they transition to adulthood.
Motivating Mentors to Bridge the Intergenerational Gap
There are vast differences between each generation that hinder communication and establishing a rapport to share tribal knowledge among mentor pairings. Even though there are differences, there are also shared experiences among the various generations, identical incidents or similar ones, such as the missile drills and active shooter drills. A key to establishing a rapport between mentors and mentees from various generations is to understand what shaped them and provided them their drive. The other is to look for similarities in experiences to share and to appreciate different perspectives.
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Dr. Michael Wolter has worked in the corporate, retail, non-profit, social services, and education sectors throughout his occupational career. His experience in higher education started in residence life, and he transitioned into career services after a few years. After starting his doctorate, Michael became a faculty member at Goodwin and has not looked back. Michael is passionate about working with adult learners and strives to develop a learning environment that fosters growth for the student as a whole, not just academically. Michael specializes in fostering a mentoring environment in the classroom and with his advisees. In addition to his roles as Program Director and Associate Professor, Michael earned a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Fellowship to enhance his teaching skills to better service his students. He is also a strong advocate for incorporating technology into the classroom to provide a flexible, interactive learning environment for students balancing work, family, and their educational journey. Michael loves his position and opportunity to be a member of the Goodwin Community.