Young People in the Workforce Dealing With Their Significantly Older Co-workers

This posting is inspired by a young lady who blogs on, and that is a link to her post.  I recommend that everyone read it as she not only writes well, but she brings up many points about what young people encounter in the workplace.  I am most definitely one of those “older than her parents” people she would encounter.  She wonders how to relate to us and that is an exceptionally good question.  Other of her posts deal with what leadership her generation, “Gen-Y” needs to give.  Those thoughts dovetail nicely.

Several years ago I was in the position of hiring my replacement.  I had decided to retire at age 58.  I was burned out, to say the least.  You can read more about that in my previous posting.  I hired a young man who was getting his B.S. degree in aeronautical engineering and had plans to continue with his master degree in that same field.  I felt he was perfect, even though I am not that sort of engineer.  I was heavily involved with aircraft safety and was working on FAA and NASA projects.  Over the next year I was able to guide him into the job.

Engineers have this tendency to be socially awkward individuals who are frequently at a loss of how to interact.  I, fortunately, have never been so burdened.  In shepherding him along I saw him as a perfect fit who would in a very short time be doing my job much better than I ever had.

This was not the first time I had “summer interns” working for me.  We had a program to hire such individuals to do some of the analysis we simply did not have the time to do.  They were usually quite bright and highly motivated.  Most times their work was part of a thesis they had to present prior to graduation.  They were also always from far away places which meant they always left.  That last summer was different as I insisted to my boss that we hire this local fellow.  He was unaware of my retirement desire.

I considered it my job to make this young man as comfortable in his job as was possible.  The first job in your field of study can be daunting, and the fear of failure palpable.  But I thought it my responsibility to reassure him that he could only fail by not trying to do what was asked of him.  I told him that I did not expect him to grasp the entirety of what I did in one summer, or as it turned out, over the next year.   What I did expect of him was to show an aptitude for the work, which he did during the summer, and the willingness to do whatever he needed to plug on and succeed.   I told him that I expected he would make lots of mistakes and that was all right.  It is simply a part of the learning process.  The only bad mistake you can make is to not admit in a timely manner when you think you have made a mistake.

Rare is the job a person does that is so unique that most people in that workplace do not understand what you are doing.  But such jobs are usually the domain of much older workers anyway.  A young person entering the workplace is the future of the company.   They provide an energy all companies need.  But more importantly, they are frequently the source of innovation.  They come into the workplace unjaded, full of ideas, optimism, and youthful idealism, all good things.  But then they look at their coworkers and see a lot of people who are 15, 25, or more years older than they are.  How to relate?

One of the first things any new worker can do is to ask they fellow workers what they do.  I think of that as networking within the workplace.  Most people are more than willing to talk about what they do.  For the young person this can prove to be hugely helpful as they day will come when they will have a question one of those people can answer and they will know exactly who to ask.  Also, most jobs overlap which means other people are doing things relevent to your job.   That gives each worker, regardless of age, something they can relate to one another.  For the young worker, you can endear yourself to the older worker in this process, and that is extremely valuable.

Young college graduates are almost always hired into a workplace filled with college graduates.  The young person can make “small talk” by asking the older person where they went to college.  That can prove interesting, particularly if you graduated from the same college.  But even more, these days new college graduates are faced with the idea of graduate school, and that can be extremely intimidating.  Again, most of these workplaces are filled with people who completed graduate school.  Such people can prove an enormous resource for those going through the experience of graduate school.  This is particularly true when the master’s thesis looms large.  I know doing my master’s thesis would have been far easier had I been able to avail myself of others who had done it.  It never occurred to me to ask.

Young people, you need to give us “old people” a chance.  When you consider the entire spectrum of activities that interest you, you will almost invariably find overlaps with us.  I am, for example, a huge bicycling fan.  On the eve of the Boston Marathon I got together with a number of much younger people for the midnight ride of the marathon route.  When bicycling was put into focus we not only found common ground, but an activity we were actually able to do together.  We had a blast!

Where music is concerned things can be far more difficult but not impossible.  There are those of us who enjoy certain types of presently popular music from artists such as Katy Perry, Pink, Maroon5, and others, but you may enjoy things like blues, jazz, classical, and other forms of music we enjoy so it is not a hopeless task.

It is rare that I find a person I cannot find common ground with.  Sometimes it requires a fair number of questions, but sooner or later something always seems to come up.  This happened recently with a 22 year-old nephew who has an interest in history.  Although our particular interests are not exact, they are close enough that we can have intelligent discussions.

To all young people I say, give us a chance.  Talk to us about whatever your heart desires and see how we react.  We just might surprise you!  It is impossible to know what interests any person has until you engage that person in a discussion and find out for certain.  You may actually find some of us to be interesting and people who want to get to know better but you do have to give us a chance.



One thought on “Young People in the Workforce Dealing With Their Significantly Older Co-workers

  1. My favorite thing, personally, about my summer job is working in an office with older people! They have more experience, and fun stories. Plus, they’re willing to treat me with respect and treat me like a mature adult. I love it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s