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How a Millennial Mentor Can Help You Keep Your Edge

You might be surprised by what younger colleagues can teach you


MarketWatch

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.) 

Many organizations expect their most senior employees to mentor the next generation of workers. If you find yourself in such a position, delivering hard-won advice to younger colleagues, stop and consider whether insight could also flow back in your direction.
 
Could one of your millennial mentees also be a mentor to you?
 
Older workers with decades on the job have invaluable experience and insight that younger employees hunger for. Just consider what years of experiential learning provide: An understanding of how your business actually makes money, the informal rules of how things get done — even the crucial sense of why things are done a certain way. No training seminar or online tool will provide the nuances that separate the successful from the merely productive; in a business world made of human beings, human insight is key.

(MORE: Why You Need a Reverse Mentor)

What Young Colleagues Can Teach You
 
Meanwhile, chances are, your mentee can pay your advice back, in spades. If you are planning to work past traditional retirement age or are even as much as a decade away from turning in your notice, insight from younger colleagues may be key to your ability to maintain a competitive advantage. In a variation on this theme, AARP has developed Mentor Up, a program that provides an opportunity for younger millennials to work with older adults in their community. Mentoring up isn't just a great idea for communities — it's also becoming an essential part of corporate success.

Things a millennial mentor can help you with might include:

 
Learning new technology — The conventional wisdom that older workers can learn new technologies from their millennial colleagues is often true. Technology is in a state of constant change. In fact, even millennials can be found looking to the youngest in their cohorts to keep up with what's new or for quick productivity tips. Given the constant acceleration of technological change, it is helpful to have someone at your side who can quickly answer a problem with “Yes, there is an app for that.” 

(MORE: Working for a Younger Boss)
 

Improved communication — The workplace was once divided simply between younger and older workers. Today there are often three or even four generations of workers with different experiences, language and perspectives. Actively listening to your millennial colleagues can keep you connected to how language is changing: What's relevant, funny, and likely to connect across all generations — be it in a presentation, sales pitch, in-house meeting, or another setting. It isn't that Johnny Carson or Jerry Seinfeld aren't funny anymore — but if they're the only cultural touchstones you ever mention, you're limiting your audience and maybe even your ability to get your point across. 
 
Extended work life — As you get older and keep working, even your clients will start to seem younger. Any successful salesperson or service provider knows that the first rule of engagement is letting your customer know that you can empathize with their needs — that you “get it.”

Staying in touch with the motivations and concerns of different age groups is critical to maintaining your edge, whether you are in sales or providing service within an organization. Moreover, your younger colleagues will one day be in the position to decide whether you will work past “retirement.” Your relationship with them, and your continuous capacity to adapt to the needs of any age, may determine your options late into your career.

(MORE: What My Young Colleagues Taught Me)

Embrace the Multigenerational Workplace 
 

Yes, after working more years than many of your colleagues have been alive, you will have a lot to teach and they will have much to learn. But technology is changing faster than ever; convoluted three and even four-generation workplaces are becoming the norm; and, whether it's fair or not, the onus is increasingly falling on the worker to make the business case that he or she belongs in the workplace. In such a reality, it's essential to connect, learn, and mentor across the generations — and in both directions.
 
Who's your millennial mentor?
Joseph F. Coughlin is Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. His research addresses how individuals, families, businesses and governments make decisions and plan for the new future of old age. Coughlin is a Behavioral Sciences Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and works with businesses and governments worldwide advising on consumer-driven innovation and engagement. He produces the blog Disruptive Demographics. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @josephcoughlin.
 
MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.

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