Patti’s Pearls of Wisdom – Bridging the Age Gap: Connecting with Older Colleagues in the Workplace 

If you read my first column, you’ll remember I wasn’t exactly knocking it out of the park during my summer internship – and that included connecting with older coworkers. Fortunately, as more time grew between that version of me and today’s version, I began to accumulate wisdom. And that wisdom told me, “Nobody wants to hear from someone who thought it was cool to wear cargo pants and a bucket hat.” Once I realized those are back in style, I knew we have more in common than I previously thought, so bridging this gap isn’t necessarily going to be as difficult as you might think. 

But, I want to make sure you don’t just get the middle-aged woman’s perspective on this topic (eek, I hate admitting that’s where I am right now) so I asked some of your Gen Z peers to also weigh in on the topic. The exceptional National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors summer interns, Mary Mintken, Shanai Watson, and Zoe Ragland-Haines, graciously answered a series of questions that I hope will make you feel less like you’re being lectured to and instead, you’re having a nice chat with some of your closest confidants.  

1 – Understanding Different Perspectives

Mary Mintken: “The most challenging aspect is that they cannot relate to current things that we are going through, so sometimes it feels as though our POV is not understood.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: As a seasoned professional, I have accumulated decades of experience in several industries. It’s essential for younger colleagues like you to recognize that the business world has evolved significantly since you entered the workforce. Embracing the wisdom and insights of more experienced individuals can be instrumental in your professional growth. We want you to succeed, but we also want you to understand how we became successful so you can use that knowledge to your advantage. 

Interns’ Advice: Don’t hesitate to share your unique perspective while also showing respect for the experiences and insights of older colleagues. Engage in open conversations, and when appropriate, share personal interests and experiences to foster a more inclusive and relatable atmosphere. 

2 – Finding Common Ground

Shanai Watson: “I try and find things we have in common in regard to interests and hobbies.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Establishing personal connections with colleagues of all ages can positively impact your work relationships. We appreciate it when younger professionals like yourself are interested in our experiences and engage in discussions beyond just workplace matters. We may not follow Addison Rae, but we like music and movies and books and have hobbies and even lived our lives as 20-somethings in the past. The one quirk we all have is asking you to show us a photo of who you’re talking about – we’re a very visual generation thanks to late 1900s television. 

Interns’ Advice: Initiate conversations about neutral topics that transcend age barriers. This approach allows both parties to share their passions and interests without feeling the pressure to conform to specific generational norms. 

3 – Recognizing the Desire to Learn

Zoe Ragland-Haines: “Overall, we want to learn! We all have different perspectives on what the professional world looks like and we want to learn more about your day to day life.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Younger professionals are often eager to learn and grow in their careers, and as experienced individuals, we value sharing our knowledge and guidance. Understanding that we are here to support your development can lead to more fruitful working relationships. The difficulty for us is that we may not understand how you best learn, so let us know. Are you more visual? Do you like to be walked through a process together? Do you like to take a stab at it? Respectfully explain how we can help you succeed! 

Interns’ Advice: Show enthusiasm for learning from older colleagues, as they possess a wealth of knowledge and experience. Express interest in their career journey and seek guidance to navigate your own path successfully.

4 – Breaking Stereotypes

Shanai Watson: “A stereotype I have found not to be true is that older colleagues tend to be stuck in their ways and are not interested in evolving- especially when given tips and tricks from interns.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Avoid assumptions based on age and allow each colleague to demonstrate their capabilities. Embrace the possibility that experienced professionals are open to new ideas and can be valuable allies in driving innovation within the organization. You don’t have the Klout yet (it’s capitalized because we used to measure that with an internet score), but we do. Lean into that as a partnership.  

Interns’ Advice: Avoid making assumptions based on age. Treat each coworker as an individual and be open to their ideas, regardless of their experience level. Demonstrating that you value their input fosters a more inclusive and collaborative work environment. 

5 – Building Connections through Interaction

Zoe Ragland-Haines: “I think that coffee, meetings, lunches, etc. are so important to connect with older colleagues.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Take the initiative to engage with younger colleagues through informal interactions like grabbing coffee or inviting them to team lunches. These moments foster camaraderie and can lead to more productive working relationships. A great trick I learned early, and see younger colleagues still use today, is to be the keeper of a well-stocked candy bowl. Older coworkers love chocolate almost as much as they love talking about how they shouldn’t eat it. If you fill it, they will come.  

Interns’ Advice: Seize opportunities for informal interactions, as they allow for more candid conversations and help build trust and camaraderie. These connections contribute to a positive and enjoyable work environment for everyone involved. 

6 – Presenting Respect

Mary Mintken: “It means a lot to me when an older colleague listens to me and believes that my opinion is useful even though I’m young.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Respect is a two-way street, and we believe it should be earned based on one’s actions and attitude. When younger professionals exhibit professionalism, dedication, and a willingness to learn, we are more inclined to offer our respect and support. Don’t worry too much about the older colleagues who dismiss you simply because you’re young – they typically don’t get much farther than they are right now so you can wave at them as you pass them on the corporate ladder.  

Interns’ Advice: Earn respect through hard work, dedication, and maturity in handling challenging situations. Show that you value the experience and wisdom of older colleagues, and they will reciprocate the respect you deserve. 

7 – Embrace Open-Mindedness

Zoe Ragland-Haines: “I always try to understand why someone has the opinion that they do, where does it stem from, and what validity it can provide to modern situations.” 

Middle-Aged Perspective: Help foster a culture of open-mindedness within the workplace. Encourage meaningful discussions, where ideas can be freely exchanged, and individuals are encouraged to learn from one another. Keep a perspective that you have something to learn from everyone – be it a how-to or a how-not-to. If you do the aforementioned things, you have managed to be likable, relatable, and respected. Those three qualities will serve you well when having a tough, but honest, conversation with an older colleague.  

Interns’ Advice: Stay open-minded and receptive to the experiences and perspectives of older colleagues. Engage in meaningful conversations and seek to learn from their wisdom, as it may offer valuable insights that can be applied to modern challenges. 

By actively engaging in open communication, showing genuine interest in one another, and embracing diverse perspectives, early-career women can build meaningful connections with their older coworkers. Remember, when different generations work harmoniously, collective wisdom and innovative ideas can drive an organization’s success to new heights. Some might even say, everyone gets a bit more enlightened.  

Along with serving on the NeW advisory board, Patricia Rausch serves as the Vice President of Education at the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. Leading the charge on new learning initiatives, she develops and executes career-connected educational programming and resources aimed to transform and advance the distribution workforce. 

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