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Simon North

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Generation gaps are a source of great learning


Social and informal learning doesn't have to only take place between Gen Y-ers. Simon North believes that all generations can teach each other something.

What an opportunity exists if we can understand and innovate around this subject In the 21st century, we tend to laud youth; its beauty, its energies, its technical knowhow and how much the young seem to know, relatively, to previous generations at the same age. The way that they have grown up with their technology, and how central it is to their life, whether academic or for fun, is awesome. There are many effects. Not least is young people's ability to be so connected and supportive of one another.

Within the same society that praises that generation, we must not deny the wisdom of experience. Earlier simple communities and societies show us the importance of wisdom and age to the smooth running of those societal/organisational models. And therein lies the opportunity for us to learn to build across these different generational gaps.
"Within the same society that praises that generation, we must not deny the wisdom of experience."
There is one issue that you can predict would come up if you were to ask a young person about what they believe is the most fundamental issue for them in any inter-relationship with another human being regardless of generation. That issue is respect. The implication is that one needs to be listened to and understood and that one's opinion has equal value; whatever your age. So if you now imagine a pie chart of equal-sized slices that come from different ages and different generations within a working environment that is rapidly rising to within a 50-year age range from youngest to oldest, you have  to assume that every member believes they have equal value. They do as an individual and as a worker. Of course the value is different for each; as unique as each person is the skills, knowledge and capability that they bring is unique also. Also, each individual is likely to be differently valued in terms of their positional power and the amount that the organisation pays them for their labour. Notwithstanding the realities of the organisation's and team's work, the fundamental point of individual value should not be lost in seeking the source of great learning across generations.
Another concept which will damage this endeavour is speed, or pace. Younger people have always been in a tearing hurry but generation Y and younger generations believe even more so it is their right to 'have it now' and there is an impatience for waiting for anything. Those of older generations might be considered and have a mindset of 'we need to take our time' or 'I wouldn’t if I were you'. Recognising the different paces at which people are thinking and doing is important to any aspiration to learn across the generations. We've always known that the learning style that suits us is not always that which suits other people. So what works best for me needs to be tempered by 'but it may not work for you' and indeed, recognition of the earlier point of listening and understanding that giving people the right space and the right tempo and the right mode of learning are all important to opening up the real opportunities for learning.
When technology really started to impact on the world of work 20 years or so ago, one of the most interesting aspects was the mentor relationship where the mentee was the older worker, completely unfamiliar with and indeed fearful of new technology that was being introduced. The mentor was indeed a 20-something year old who had expertise and a comfort with the very same technology. Whilst that relationship was new in the 80s and 90s and was most marked at that time, the same issues pertain. Parents in their forties or fifties now conceptually understand what Facebook is but they still marvel at the speed of communications across that platform and others that allow their offspring to arrange a party for a big number of people within a matter of minutes.
"Mentor relationships provide the opportunity for reciprocal learning. If I want to learn from you about aspects of the business or technological skills, you may want to learn from me other business-related and relevant skills..."
Mentor relationships provide the opportunity for reciprocal learning. If I want to learn from you about aspects of the business or technological skills, you may want to learn from me other business-related and relevant skills which might be to do with presentations and verbal communications for example. The benefit of this type of relationship is not just the time and the space created by two people with differing backgrounds and life experience; it also provides an excellent opportunity for different points of view to be exchanged.
These points of view and exchanges of this type, whilst difficult to measure in hard terms, enable a richer and more open culture to develop between individuals of different generations. Young people are aware of so much more. They have access across boundaries older people never had. They can spot bad values easily. Their impact on the future is huge in any organisational context. The challenge is how learning can be used as a bridge to really engage individuals of all generations.

Simon North co-founded Position Ignition for Organisations to help organisations with risk management, succession planning, change management and the effective management of senior workers. He also launched, which helps individuals with executive career change, career choices, job search and other mid-career challenges. Visit their Executive Career Advice Blog for more career articles


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