Generational Issues Just Won’t Go Away

generationalconflictHow would you have responded to these comments and questions that I have received in the past few months?

  • A young 20-something millennial director of volunteers stayed after the workshop and waited until we were alone, and then she said to me, “I am having a huge problem with several of my older colleagues. They are out to sabotage my leadership.” She teared up and said, “I’ve tried everything. I used to love my job, but now I dread going to work.” She paused for a moment and then asked me, “What do you suggest I do to get them to accept my leadership?”
  • A director of volunteers who is a young baby boomer (early 50s) sent me this e-mail after a workshop.

“I enjoyed your presentation today. However, I did want to let you know that I disagree strongly with the way you handled the generational discussion. I felt that segregating everyone by age groups was putting us older members at a disadvantage. I have personally been the recipient of insensitive comments about my age in the workplace, and one person commented at the end of that session that she hadn’t been aware of my age prior to that session. I would have preferred to keep it that way. There is too much discrimination towards older workers, especially women.  I was personally very uncomfortable during that exercise. I suggest you re-think how you do it next time. Perhaps mixed age groups would be most appropriate.”

I had never divided people into three groups before—the boomers, x-ers and millennials. Usually I divide the workshop participants into two groups–the over 30 and the 30 and under. But several X-ers (in their 30s and 40s) had expressed to me in previous workshops that they didn’t like being linked with the boomers. They felt that there were a lot of differences between Xers and boomers. So now I’m rethinking how I’m going to handle this discussion.

  • I’m currently developing a workshop for an organization on how to get the young professionals in their association to volunteer. At a conference call to discuss the workshop, I asked them to define “young professional.” They all laughed and told me that they had upped the age of young professional to just over 40. I teased them and suggested that they must be in their early 40s and still want to be referred to as “young professionals.” They responded with an uncomfortable laugh. How we resist getting older.
  • Last month as a young millennial director of volunteers raised this question during the Q and A, I saw many in the room nodding their heads agreeing with her concern. She questioned the value of working with teenage volunteers. She said that they frankly just take a lot of effort, and she was struggling with the time it takes to work and train teenagers who will not be back as soon as their assignment is up. Then she asked me, “Do you think it’s worth the time and effort to use high school volunteers?”
  • In another workshop a director of volunteers told me he was going to be 59 in a few months. He said that he was tired and just hanging on until he could retire. He needed to keep his job for five more years so that could get his maximum retirement, and he was counting the days until he could go fishing (his words). His final words were, “I’ve just lost my passion for this work, and I’m getting more and more cynical. I don’t like what is happening to me, so what can I do to restore my passion for a few more years?”
  • In another workshop two boomer directors of volunteers voiced their frustration with the younger generation who referred to boomers as redundant, slow and not relevant. They felt that they were being pushed out and feared for their jobs. Their comments were filled with a great deal of fear, frustration and a bit of anger. Then they asked me, “What can we do to demonstrate that we keep up on changing trends, and that we know how to use the aps on a smart phone?”

In the first six months of 2014 I have been a keynote speaker and workshop leader in Ireland, Canada, and eight states in the U.S., and in every workshop the generational issue keeps coming up. And most of the time the comments were expressed with a great deal of emotion.   I’ve shared a few of these comments, but I could write ten more pages on the generational concerns. It is a hot issue that seems to be growing, and the hostility I am feeling from directors of volunteers is intensifying.

In my conversations with these frustrated, fearful and sometimes even angry directors of volunteers, I offered some of the following suggestions.

Four tips for navigating the generational minefield

First, the dominating issue, whatever our age, is that we all want respect.

Last week I walked into a local restaurant to buy a gift certificate and the young man (in his late 20’s) behind the counter asked me, “How can I help you, Pops?” I felt like saying, “I’m not your Pop.”

What a difference when I am in Africa. In September Jonathan (co-author of The New Breed) and I will be in Kampala, Uganda, teaching leadership-development workshops. One of the reasons that I love Africa is that they respect age. Jonathan is in his mid 40s and earns his respect by what he has to say. I find that I have immediate respect when I walk in a room because of my gray hair (I’m the same age as Harrison Ford and Paul McCartney—72). I felt the same thing when I was traveling in London and Ireland last month. When I walked into a crowded underground, young people would immediately stand up and offer my wife and me their seats. How cool is that? And I love traveling in the southern U.S states where young people express respect toward those of us with gray hair. In Mississippi last April, the young men and women were so respectful as they would often grace their conversations with “Yes, sir”. No young person in the South called me “Pops.”

But respect is far more than honoring those of us who are growing older. The best way to get respect is to listen. Nine out of 10 millennials want senior people in their company to listen to their ideas and opinions. In my travels I am concluding that ten out of ten boomers want millennials to ask them for their opinions.

Which leads me to my next two suggestions on gaining respect.

Second, If you are younger, spend time affirming and learning from my generation.

My granddaughter Alyssa is a sophomore in college and home for the summer. A highlight of my week is our weekly lunch dates, and one of the reasons I love going out to lunch with Alyssa is because she always asks me, “Papa, how are you doing?” Or, “How would you handle this situation?” She asks me for advice and then listens. Many young people don’t ask or listen.

I hate to admit it, but in some ways you do threaten those of us who are older. I suggested to the young manager who felt the boomers were out to sabotage her leadership that she go into the office of those who were complaining, sit down with them one-on-one, and ask for their advice on decisions.

As we talked, I found out that she had not been meeting with them, but rather just sending out e-mails to give assignments and announce changes. This is a huge mistake that is made by many managers of all ages. It is not just the young who misuse technology as a management tool. It is a temptation for managers of all ages because talking takes up so much time. But a directive e-mail that dictates a decision or assignment does not generate respect and actually will take more time in the long run because of the misunderstanding and conflict. Rather than sending out an e-mail with your solution to a problem or a decision that you have made, sit down with your team members to discuss the situation. The 21st century new breed, knowledge worker wants to be part of the decision.

And finally I asked this young manager to put herself in their shoes and try to think of how she would feel if she had been passed over for leadership by a person 20 years younger. That’s not an easy pill to swallow.

Third, if you are older, spend time with the younger generation.

I often ask people in my workshops this question, “How many of you served in a leadership position a young age?” About 50% of the people in the room raise their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you made mistakes as a young leader?” Even though I introduce that second question by saying, “You don’t have to raise your hands for this question,” most of us are instinctively raising our hands and chuckling as we recall some of the crazy, outlandish things we did. We were full of passion and new ideas and often created chaos. But someone gave us the opportunity to lead—and fail along the way.

We need to give the younger generation the same opportunities. Recruit young millennials to lead a project. Sit with them and outline together the scope, the budget and the time-line for the event. Sit in meetings with them and coach them on how to engage those of us who are older. Most millennials say they want independence, yet they want to be coached. Look at the opportunity of leading volunteers as an opportunity to mentor young leaders. Invest in them. Listen to them. Coach them, and most of all, look for the potential in them.

I am a firm believer in investing in youth. After the workshop in which the question was raised about investing time with teenage volunteers, I suggested that she recruit several team leaders to coach the teenage volunteers. My mission with young volunteers is two fold.

  • First, I want to awaken a passion for our organization and our mission. I want these teenagers never to forget their experience volunteering for our mission. My granddaughter Ashley, who is a senior in high school, recently told me about a day she spent stocking shelves at the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services when she was in the eighth grade. She now has a vision for what they were doing and has not forgotten it. I don’t know who the person was who handled that group of hyperactive, loud and crazy eighth graders, but I know one teenager who never will forget the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.
  • Second, I want to invest in developing the leaders of tomorrow. Sometimes college students and young adults love working with teens, and I would look for these kinds of volunteers who have a passion for kids. Turn them loose with your teenage volunteers.

Fourth, restore your passion.

As we grow older, it is easy to lose our passion. If we have been doing this job for a long time, we can find ourselves in a rut. We need to become very intentional about restoring our passion. Join your local DOVIA, attend a Points of Light convention or a convention with others in your field such as SHVL (Southeastern Healthcare Volunteer Leaders) or a YS convention (Youth Specialties) where you can meet with others who work with volunteers. Set some new goals and don’t fall into the cynical pit of just hanging on to retirement.

Mastermind Group: Another way to restore your passion is to start a volunteer “mastermind group.” “Mastermind groups” offer a combination of brainstorming, education, peer accountability and support in a group setting to sharpen your business and personal skills. A “mastermind group” helps you and group members achieve success. Participants challenge each other to set important goals, and more importantly, to accomplish them. The group requires commitment, confidentiality, willingness to be creative and brainstorm ideas/solutions, and support each other with total honesty, respect and compassion. Pick your group carefully and meet once a month for lunch or breakfast. You can use the following tools for discussion and goal setting.

Article for discussion: I’ve highlighted articles from in which I address very specific generational issues. Use these kinds of articles to stimulate discussion at your group session. Download them (they are free for you to use), copy them, and discuss them with your staff—hopefully that is multi-generational.

  1. The Challenges and Opportunities of Leading Four Generations of Volunteers
  2. How the No-Collar Workplace is Shaping the Workplace and What That Means for Volunteer Involvement
  3. How Can Millennials Lead Older Generations—Some Quick tips
  4. How do we get the Gen Xers to volunteer?   (This article was written in 2003. I find it interesting that Gen Xers today are criticizing the same issues that were leveled at them 11 years ago. Some things just don’t change. Hmmmmm)

The New Breed: And if you haven’t read The New Breed, Jonathan and I have had tons of combined experience in engaging people across all generations. Get a copy of the book and read it together in your mastermind group.

 Check this out: Tom speaks at the Points of Light Conference 2014

TomMcKeespeakI had the opportunity to speak at the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service thanks to the sponsorship of AARP. I shared the platform with David Eisner, CEO of Repair the World, (and former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service) and the Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, who is the Senior Pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.After these two significant leaders shared examples of what volunteers are doing to meet the social, spiritual, physical, financial, and psychological needs in our world today, I was given an hour to present 21st century volunteer engagement tools to recruit and mobilize the volunteers to accomplish the goals and challenges that we had just heard about. How cool is that? What a thrill to present practical and 21st century tools to engage people of faith as volunteers. Oh, and the four tools I presented were 1) A date, 2) A frame, 3) A piece of duct tape and 4) A button. My goal was that people would not only walk out challenged, but with practical take-aways on what to do and how to make it happen. What a privilege to spend time with significant leaders who are out to change the world with volunteers.

This entry was posted in Baby Boomers, Leadership, Millennials, Recruiting. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Generational Issues Just Won’t Go Away

  1. Rob Jackson says:

    A brilliant article as always Tom, thank you.

    I particularly loved this observation:

    “But a directive e-mail that dictates a decision or assignment does not generate respect and actually will take more time in the long run because of the misunderstanding and conflict. Rather than sending out an e-mail with your solution to a problem or a decision that you have made, sit down with your team members to discuss the situation. The 21st century new breed, knowledge worker wants to be part of the decision.”


    Your points of view and your ideas are full of inspiration .Thank you for including me in your e-mails.
    Allow -me a slightly different observation. You suggest:. I totally agree but with a slight differentiation: We cannot impose respect, the respect is something that can be , by knowledge, education, continuous learning , compassion, through life span. Our behavior attracts respect, our personality imposes respect, our words and deeds inspire respect.

  3. Rick Light says:

    Very informative and useful. Thanks very much.

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