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Generational Issues at Work: Mind Your Karma, People!

stereotypingI was 38 when a fiftysomething colleague explained life to me: You do a bunch of stupid stuff in your 20s. In your 30s, you still do stupid stuff, but you start to figure out who you want to be. You get some serious clarity in your 40s – but that decade? It only lasts about 15 minutes. Your 50s blow by even faster.

I laughed so hard, but I’m telling you, that dude spoke the truth. Time flies and then you are suddenly way older. I recently keynoted for a conference for young lawyers, most of whom were between the ages of 27 and 43. I loved their energy and potential, and especially appreciated how they were just beginning to feel and use their power.

“Don’t you get all smug about being so much younger than me,” I chided them. “I believe in reincarnation and by the time I come back and am your age, you are going to be pooping in your Depends.”

Everybody laughed. But there is some truth to the idea that what goes around comes around. And, even if you don’t see the value in workers who are much older than you, the value is there. There may be an older person who doesn’t seem to get or fit in with the vibe or direction you want, but that person worked hard and learned much. It is far better to learn what that person has to offer than to push him or her away because they are old. The day will come when a much younger boss is looking at you and thinking you are the one who just doesn’t get it. There is a good chance you are going to get back everything you dished out. That’s just Mother Karma doing her thing.

Can we please just stop generalizing about generations and start appreciating one another? The number of younger workers is decreasing. The number of older workers is increasing. We need each other.

You may be working with or supervising people who are older than you, and they might seem much older. But, your turn to be the old person in the office will come and it will come much sooner than you think. You probably don’t like being lumped in as being one way or another because you are a millennial or a GenXer or GenYer, so be careful not to make assumptions of the Baby Boomers.

Some Boomers are pretty badass. I know I am. Let’s do an adventure sometime. You’ll see.

We can joke about our differing work or communication habits, but we have everything to gain by trying to go to the other person’s perspective and learn to communicate. Why build division when you can build trust? We all have plenty we can teach each other. Don’t assume the “old person” in the room is not tech savvy. Some aren’t that great at it, but by now, most are pretty good and many are as technologically with it as you are. Regardless, they are huge resources because they know people. They know office politics. They know how to sell and plan and create an agenda and make a presentation. They are wonderful resources because they’ve made their stupid mistakes and can keep you from making a few.

They are smart, and they want to be involved, not placated, patronized or minimized.

I have been interviewing people who killed it professionally. It is heartbreaking to hear what they have faced as they hit middle age and were either laid off, pushed aside or drowned in unemployability.

Don’t categorize them because they don’t look or think like you. Find out what they’ve got, because you will be surprised what a difference they can make.

I used to be a reporter and I remember one of the “veteran” employees who was one of the oldest people in the newsroom. When she died, I looked at her age in her obituary and shocked to realize that, way back when she was “the old person,” she was 45. Forty-five is ancient to a 23-year-old, but it is very young. The other “old person” in the newsroom hadto be ancient because she was a grandmother, but now that I’ve gone back and done the math, I realize she was 37 at the time.

They were so young, but to me they were so old. ! still hung out with them – a lot. We had a great time and I learned a lot.

I’m sad that, now that I have worked on this generational career project, I am hearing stories about older people who are talented and extremely successful have been automatically discounted if they are over a certain age.

Is the cutoff point 50? Fifty-three? Fifty-five? Somewhere in there.

If you are young and having to supervise or deal with older people, here is a true fact: People over 40 and over 50 and over 60s have careers that matter just as much to them as yours does to you. Don’t discount them. Be their champion and they will be yours. Believe me, they can make you very, very successful.

Plus, your day is coming. You’ll get what you give.

Best-selling author and leadership keynote speaker Fawn Germer is looking for professionals of every generation to interview for next book project on generational issues at work. Write her at if you would like to participate. Visit

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