How To Embrace Young Workers — Who don’t want to embrace us

I’m coming off a speech to 50-something and 60-something government executives, followed by the wedding of two 20-something and 30-thirysomething folk, and the return home of our 24-year old college graduate, young worker.  Generational shifts are not only on my mind, but they are shifting the cultural ground beneath my feet.  This may be a real DUH-column, of significance only to a white male middle-aged straight Christian guy. But with these limitations that frame my perception, I plod forward.

I wasn’t intending to talk about “young people these days” to the 200-some government executives to whom I was speaking about change last week. But because I speak from the floor and not the safety of a podium, and I ask and sample as much as I assert and instruct, this “old people’s lament” was what I heard. They are concerned about succession planning, because their retirements are fast-approaching.  And they are concerned about recruitment, retention and motivation.  They had little good to say about the End-Of-The-Alphabet Generations, X and Y and Z. “Maybe that’s what they’re like at Berkeley,” a man responded to my general optimism, and a wave of laughter and nods followed, as many decried the lack of motivation, loyalty and initiative they see among young workers. So, hold that picture.

The wedding I attended was of my children’s generation.  A fellow old fart and I murmured at the reception that our dads must have been rolling in their graves. Like our pops, we fancy we stand for and with tradition (as a feminist myself, I fully recognize that tradition has tended to stand more forcefully for folks like us). In our comfort zones, weddings ought come with wise ministers or rabbis, ancient wisdom from a book of leather or gold, or a magnificent scroll. Not this weekend.  Here, joy and frivolity were big; sons of WWII era guys, we’re a little skittish when it comes to joy let alone frivolity). Instead we think the sobriety of the vows ought to take center stage. That vow in our “should”-dominated-world rises up as a statement of will and force (driven to be sure by fear and trembling).  But to us these days a vow seems more like a poem, or a hope.

What to make of this?  At work and in family, these young people are different.  They are in so many ways a product of and a reaction to…us.

  • Our establishment companies have treated their parents as “cost centers” when it came to cost cutting; no surprise that blind loyalty is not in their arsenal.
  • They are the adult children of (work)aholics, and don’t want to sacrifice their life to work.
  • They have known 50% divorce rates,
  • Been marginalized by churches and –
  • Can anyone say “government shutdown” — they’ve been let down by government leaders.

They are at once profoundly skeptical (realistic?), sold on living-for-today, yet – and this is easy for me to miss – wanting to make our world a better place – in their own way – as we sought and still do desire to “change the world,” in our way.

How do you bridge this generation gap?  What does it ask of YOU?

I believe I have two responsibilities, neither of which comes easy:

  1. LISTEN more than I talk. It’s trite to write, but they see as much or more than I do about the present, because the current culture (and technology) reflect the milieu they are steeped in.  Moreover, the future belongs to them. They — more than we — will lead.  Time inexorable.
  2. Work with them to make our institutions worth committing to.  I think they want to belong and commit; most humans do.  But we — as much as they — need to work to make sure our institutions – our workplaces, governments, religious institutions, etc., — are striving to incorporate their input and energy and perspective.

Maybe we should not be asking, “How do we help them fit into our world?” but instead “How do we fit into their world – the world coming into being?”

Do you too find this hard work, as you

Lead with your best self?


  • Dan – I so very much appreciate your weekly columns. I’m in my late twenties, government worker, wife and mother. I stumbled across your site while in my Department’s Leadership Academy, so I can probably be grouped into my generations “go-getter” category.

    But I have to say, I’m so tired of hearing this. It feels like a war on my generation. Weren’t you young once? Don’t you know that not all of us are striving to be government executives? Maybe we value finding balance in our lives versus the sacrifice it takes to be at the top. You don’t think we perform high enough? Set higher goals. You are the leaders.

    Also, what I find frustrating is the lack of reflection on your generation. I don’t mean the typical “I am a boomer so therefore my traits are..” What I mean is to take a good look at what other people in your generation are doing right now. Sitting waiting for the US to stabilize before retiring, draining the social security we are paying into but most likely will not collect, providing judgment on new ideas or innovations instead of being open to collaborative ideas, etc. Many of my graduate class from many years ago cannot even break into their desired market because there is no movement. Not only are there fewer jobs but less people willing to phase out of the workforce.

    I appreciate your columns. You inspire me to be a better leader at the beginning of every week. But this week I want to stress even more than you did – this is a two way street. And who ever said we don’t embrace other generations? I’d kill for the opportunity to shadow one of my government executives – If that opportunity existed.

    • Claire,
      Wow! I wish I had written what you have written, but of course, I couldn’t. Isn’t that the point.
      Thanks so much for sharing this perspective of yours. I hope it gets more eyeballs than my original column!

    • Every generation feels like it is under attack from the others. My generation was considered lazy, self-involved, and so disengaged that we couldn’t even find the United States on a map. Then we grew up and did things like build space stations and the Internet. Of course it was more than one generation that did those things (and most other things that are BFDs). Experience + legacy knowledge + new ideas = advancement. Each generation just has to get used to the next, and because our world changes so rapidly, there are a lot of new things to get used to. I would also like to comment on that Social Security statement … many seniors collecting SS feel resented at this point for collecting something that they too have paid into their entire lives. All we ever hear about is how it’s an “entitlement” and it won’t be there for anyone else. Also, older generations contribute to research and development on many things that will never come to fruition in their lifetimes. We’re all in this together.

  • “Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a-changin’.” Dylan echoes your comments, and vice versa. You say, listen to them, and collaborate with them. Right on. Your thoughts are always good, Dan, but I have to say you’re getting into the upper echelons of phrase-turners, too. Your paragraph starting with “The wedding I attended…” just sparkles! You go, man!

  • Hi, Dan! I’m glad to see this topic bubbling back up again. Constructive dialogue about the changing workplace was ignored for several years as organizations went into survival mode due to the economic downturn. As leaders begin thinking about the future, workplace change topics are becoming relevant again. I believe there are systemic issues contributing to the disconnect between the generations in the workplace–the shift away from traditional home/support structures, the inability to depend on any company for long-term employment, the globalization of work and the continual disruptor that is technology adoption. And technology will continue to be a huge disruptor. But, it’s also a huge opportunity. The companies that master a collaborative, cross-generational way to work will gain distinct technological advantage over their competition. The workplace adaptations necessary to maximize the contributions of all ages won’t be easy, but they’ll be extremely rewarding and profitable. I’m contemplating a book on the business rationale for adapting and steps companies can take to begin the adaptation process.

  • No message of fascism, corporatist collusion, endless wars, $17 trillion in debt, infiltration of our gov’t (not just on Capitol Hill but also in DoD and Pentagon) by Zionist dual citizenship (Israel-American) saboteurs, un-Constitutional ‘leadership’…I could go on and on…no wonder the youngsters not only don’t trust but have a genuine disdain for…THE STABLISHMENT. Well, that said…I DO TOO!!

  • I see it similarly to you Dan. I believe as the ‘older’ generation we have a responsibility to embrace and encourage the change. I believe the difference for us versus previous generations is the speed of change we are seeing in the Information Age. This is accelerating our children’s knowledge and narrowing the gap of the older generations ‘wisdom’. Our parents, and our grandparents, saw the onsite of television, common air travel and other inventions that narrowed the generation gap for them, but now the Information Age is accelerating the narrowing of this gap. Our wisdom should only be to embrace and try to enhance the next generations intentions. As you stated we have influenced them in our generations performance – now step up and embrace change as we once desired ourselves.

    Thanks for your intelligent thoughtful insights to everyday life, home, church and work. I look forward to your weekly column.

  • Dan, I don’t always comment on what you write but this one moved me! I’m a firm believer in “every dog has to have their day!” The gen XYZ, millenials are having theirs, and I think they should revel in it as I did in my “day” in the late ’60’s & early ’70’s. I try to be available for questions, light guidance, whatever someone asks, but also ready to lead too! We have a lot to learn from our younger counterparts desire for flexibility. In many ways the baby boomers fought in the streets but then went to work & got dictated to, and we accepted it. Our children aren’t doing that & the rebel in me says–good for them!

  • Nice thread of comments. We all need more “we” and less “us” and “them.” Chronologically I’m in Dan’s group (well, even a bit older!) so of course that means there are real differences in the way I grew up experiencing the world from the way people in other age groups see and experiene the world. But I don’t want to be automatically lumped in with boomers anymore than I want to be pigeonholed with only women, only Americans, only short people, only liberals/Dems, etc
    When my boomer-colleagues at work assume I’m with “them” in their view of “millenials,” I speak up. It makes me cringe.
    Dan, how about a guest column from Claire Stevens – or one of your students or daughters?

  • I have to agree with Ms Stevens’ first point (there are alternatives to ladder-climbing). I’m in my late 50s, and until recently, living the standard unbalanced 20th Century lifestyle (work/stress/more work/more stress) as a federal civilian. Long story short, I had an opportunity to acquire more balance in my life 6 months ago by making a lateral move, which I took….and have only looked back a couple times….and then only briefly. I am happier. More importantly my family is happier. Now if I could only get paid for the work I am currently doing for the federal government as a DoD civilian under the current non-furloughed, non-budgeted interim ’cause the incoming bills are neither taking a furlough nor dropping to zero (smile).
    PS: it’s great seeing civilized discussion like this; quite refreshing. Aloha!

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