Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Let’s stop talking about generation gap and explore inter-generational synergies

Creativity and entrepreneurship should be age-blind as everyone has something to learn and teach

Paul Tasner is one of Network Capital’s oldest members. He was fired at 64. On a sunny Friday evening, just before Christmas, he was called into a meeting that turned out to be his exit interview. His wife had no idea about it and was waiting for him at a nearby restaurant. A few hours later, they both got drunk and celebrated the end of 40 years of continual employment.

He could have retired but chose a different path. Combining his engineering skills and passion for environment, Tasner started making biodegradable packaging from waste and became a first-time entrepreneur at 66. Over the past few years, his company has won dozens of innovation awards and seen a significant spike in revenue. His TED talk has been viewed more than two million times and he is on a mission to make the phrase “70 over 70" as common as “30 under 30".

Entrepreneurship and creativity should be age-blind, he says. I asked him if he had any advice for today’s millennials. In his inimitable style, he said that perhaps they should try and learn more from older colleagues.

Chip Conley was 52 when he got a call from the founders of Airbnb to help them guide their growth from a high growth startup to a mature company. By that time, he hadn’t heard of the sharing economy, didn’t have Uber or Lyft on his phone and had no idea what shipping a product meant. His past experience of building boutique hotels was relevant, but it would be useless if the engineering team didn’t trust him. Instead of judging them or doubting himself, he set upon the task of building a shared language for the entire organization. Together they figured out a way to make multi-generational wisdom work, charted a common set of goals and pursued them relentlessly. Under Conley’s mentorship, from 2013-17, Airbnb’s valuation increased 1,200% and it even managed to become profitable.

Leaders like Conley and Tasner have proven that sharing economy is as much about sharing wisdom across generations as it is about sharing resources. That’s why the concept of mutual mentorship across generations strongly resonates with me. I believe that everyone has something to learn and something to teach. All we need is a platform and a community to share skills at scale across barriers, borders, generations and boundaries.

This is, of course, easier said than done. We have a natural tendency to gravitate towards people we relate to, those with whom we have a lot in common. They tend to be similar in age, conviction, taste and outlook. That is why marketing gurus and political pundits lay so much faith in customer and voter segmentation.

The term generation gap traces its origin to sociologist Karl Mannheim’s theory of generations but it only became mainstream in 1960s when the younger generation (now called baby boomers) seemed to go against everything their parents stood for in terms of music, politics, career choices and government views.

I believe in the coming years as people live longer, retire later and change jobs more frequently, we will witness up to five generations work on the same team or in the same office. Today, almost 40% of Americans have bosses younger than them. This trend is likely to replicate itself in other countries. Instead of swallowing this as a bitter pill, we can go the Airbnb route and make generational diversity work for us.

Conley famously said that companies are not B-to-B (business to business) or B-to-C (business to consumer). They are H-to-H (human-to-human). With the mainstreaming of artificial intelligence, building scalable H2H businesses will need wisdom across generations. That’s why it is time to stop talking about generation gap and start exploring inter-generational synergy. Millennial Matters discusses the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

Close