How To Embrace Young Workers — Who don’t want to embrace us


I’m coming off a speech to 50-something and 60-something government executives, followed by the wedding of two 20-something and 30-thirysomething folk, and the return home of our 24-year old college graduate, young worker.  Generational shifts are not only on my mind, but they are shifting the cultural ground beneath my feet.  This may be a real DUH-column, of significance only to a white male middle-aged straight Christian guy. But with these limitations that frame my perception, I plod forward.

I wasn’t intending to talk about “young people these days” to the 200-some government executives to whom I was speaking about change last week. But because I speak from the floor and not the safety of a podium, and I ask and sample as much as I assert and instruct, this “old people’s lament” was what I heard. They are concerned about succession planning, because their retirements are fast-approaching.  And they are concerned about recruitment, retention and motivation.  They had little good to say about the End-Of-The-Alphabet Generations, X and Y and Z. “Maybe that’s what they’re like at Berkeley,” a man responded to my general optimism, and a wave of laughter and nods followed, as many decried the lack of motivation, loyalty and initiative they see among young workers. So, hold that picture.

The wedding I attended was of my children’s generation.  A fellow old fart and I murmured at the reception that our dads must have been rolling in their graves. Like our pops, we fancy we stand for and with tradition (as a feminist myself, I fully recognize that tradition has tended to stand more forcefully for folks like us). In our comfort zones, weddings ought come with wise ministers or rabbis, ancient wisdom from a book of leather or gold, or a magnificent scroll. Not this weekend.  Here, joy and frivolity were big; sons of WWII era guys, we’re a little skittish when it comes to joy let alone frivolity). Instead we think the sobriety of the vows ought to take center stage. That vow in our “should”-dominated-world rises up as a statement of will and force (driven to be sure by fear and trembling).  But to us these days a vow seems more like a poem, or a hope.

What to make of this?  At work and in family, these young people are different.  They are in so many ways a product of and a reaction to…us.

  • Our establishment companies have treated their parents as “cost centers” when it came to cost cutting; no surprise that blind loyalty is not in their arsenal.
  • They are the adult children of (work)aholics, and don’t want to sacrifice their life to work.
  • They have known 50% divorce rates,
  • Been marginalized by churches and –
  • Can anyone say “government shutdown” — they’ve been let down by government leaders.

They are at once profoundly skeptical (realistic?), sold on living-for-today, yet – and this is easy for me to miss – wanting to make our world a better place – in their own way – as we sought and still do desire to “change the world,” in our way.

How do you bridge this generation gap?  What does it ask of YOU?

I believe I have two responsibilities, neither of which comes easy:

  1. LISTEN more than I talk. It’s trite to write, but they see as much or more than I do about the present, because the current culture (and technology) reflect the milieu they are steeped in.  Moreover, the future belongs to them. They — more than we — will lead.  Time inexorable.
  2. Work with them to make our institutions worth committing to.  I think they want to belong and commit; most humans do.  But we — as much as they — need to work to make sure our institutions – our workplaces, governments, religious institutions, etc., — are striving to incorporate their input and energy and perspective.

Maybe we should not be asking, “How do we help them fit into our world?” but instead “How do we fit into their world – the world coming into being?”

Do you too find this hard work, as you

Lead with your best self?