The other day I came across a quote attributed to Jan Owen, CEO of The Foundation for Young Australians: “If you’re over 45 and you don’t have an under 30-year-old mentor — not mentee, but mentor — you’re going to miss fundamental shifts in thinking that are happening.”
Reverse mentorship, in which a company pairs younger employees with executives, is becoming increasingly popular as organizations struggle to keep current with social and cultural change. Those who participate in such programs report that it helps them communicate better and develop more informed strategies.
Fundamental shifts in the way societies view themselves and the world around them have always happened, but for most of human history they happened gradually, with long increments of time in between. Advice tended to flow in one direction — from the more experienced to the less experienced — because the lessons learned along the way were still relevant 10, 20 or even 50 years later.
Today, however, social and cultural changes are occurring more frequently because of the speed with which new technologies are being developed. Personal computers, email, smartphones, social media, artificial intelligence — each new development affects how we interact with one another, how we communicate, even how we see ourselves. The resulting social and cultural changes not only occur more frequently, they go deeper as well.
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Early in my career I was asked to meet regularly with a senior colleague. He had been assigned to me as part of a mentorship program at the university where I had just been hired. It was not a good fit.
I was looking for advice about how to keep students engaged in the classroom and how to focus my scholarly work on areas that would be timely and relevant.
He was cordial, happy to meet with me and have someone listen to his reminiscences, but he didn’t have anything useful to offer. He had not kept current with recent literature in our field. His research was fascinating to him but, to my mind, inconsequential. It was like we were living in two different worlds, and he did not know it.
In Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, “The General,” Keaton plays a Confederate railroad engineer fleeing from Union soldiers who are pursuing on another train. As he stands on top of the tender, furiously chopping wood to feed the engine, one can see the Union Army advancing and the Confederates in retreat, the battle lines shifting behind his back. He is too engaged in his work to notice what is going on around him. From that point on, all his progress takes him deeper into enemy territory.
The scene depicts the predicament many of us face in today’s world. We work hard to obtain some measure of success. The harder we work, the more attention we pay to it, the more we lose sight of what is going on outside our focus. When we take a break to look around, we find the world has changed.
It is deeply unsettling to live in a world that is constantly changing, not just in superficial ways but seismically. One can go from useful to useless in the blink of an eye. One day you are teaching your kids how to drive; the next you are asking them how to connect to Bluetooth. They are thinking: “This is the guy who wants to tell me how to live?”
But as unsettling as change can be for older people, it can be much worse for the young, who often think they have nobody to rely upon for advice about the most important things. I am convinced this is part of the reason for increasing rates of anxiety and depression among the young.
We are not going to slow down the rate of change. Technological development has become the defining feature of contemporary life. We need to learn how to live with it. That is going to require more attention to the quality of intergenerational relationships. Older people and younger people need each other, and the more we acknowledge that and work to establish and maintain healthy, mutually beneficial relationships, the better off all of us will be.
When I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time with my grandpa Ralph. Most of his advice came from his time as a turkey farmer or from his days as a hobo during the Great Depression. One day we were walking through the woods. He bent over, picked up a pebble and stuck it in his mouth. “If you ever run out of water,” he said, “just suck on a pebble.”
Most of his advice consisted of simple, practical tips about surviving through hard times. It was interesting but not terribly relevant to my life, as far as I could see. As I got older and went off to college, he had little to offer me.
But his advice could be cryptic, and I came to understand that much of what he said had more than one meaning. His last words to me were like that. “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” he said. Nobody tries to pass off coins made of wood anymore, but you still need to look out for those who would give you nothing for something.
As technology develops, the culture changes. That’s why older people needed younger people to help them stay current. But human nature stays the same, and that’s why younger people need the wisdom of those who have been around a while.
We need each other. And that’s a good thing.