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« Stay Classy, Minnesota! | Main | Demystifying Board Service Part 1 »
Thursday
May052011

Mind the Age Gap: Tips for Navigating an Intergenerational Workplace

by Lisa Thalacker Joyslin
follow me on Twitter: @ltjoyslin

It was my first day at a new job. I almost made it through lunch before facing the dreaded question: “How old are you?" Four hours on the job and I'd realized that most of my colleagues were 20-30 years my senior. I’d hoped to not reveal exactly how young I was until I’d been there a bit longer, but it was not meant to be. "I'm 26." "Oh, I thought you might be about my daughter's age," my colleague replied. "She's 24."

Starting a new job is often nerve wracking. Starting a new job when you're the youngest person at work can be even harder. I remember the questions running through my head: “Will my colleagues think I’m too young for this job? Will I fit in? Will my contributions be respected?”

Now that I’ve been at my job for three years, it’s easy to look back and wonder why I was so worried. But navigating an intergenerational workplace—especially when you’re the youngest—can be intimidating. Here are some tips that I learned along my journey:

  1. Forget the assumptions. You don’t want older co-workers to make assumptions about you, so don’t make assumptions about them. Just as Millennials are not all video game-crazed hipsters with poor work ethics, Baby Boomers are not all technology-fearing empty-nesters. Take time to get to know each of your co-workers as individuals. You’ll all gain a greater appreciation of one another.
  2. Be a student…and a teacher. There’s a lot to learn from more experienced colleagues, so take advantage of that. But don’t underestimate yourself. Younger nonprofit professionals may have different skills than their older colleagues, but these skills are no less valuable. Share your expertise with co-workers of all generations. 
  3. Take advantage of professional development opportunities. If your colleagues are seasoned nonprofit professionals, they may not be as interested in some trainings and professional development opportunities. If this is the case, be sure your boss knows that you’d be happy to represent your organization at these opportunities. And if cost is an issue, show your initiative by researching free professional development opportunities in your area or seeking out scholarships for larger conferences.
  4. Learn where to draw the line on out-of-pocket expenses. It's not uncommon for an organization—particularly at small nonprofits—to have a culture where employees don't request reimbursement for personal expenses. This is fine, if you can afford it. But many of us are under the financial strains of paying-off student loans, saving up for a house or paying for child care. If your out-of-pocket expenses seem unreasonable, don't be afraid to talk to your supervisor and draw the line. Some of your colleagues—of all generations—may be glad you brought it up.
  5. Soak up the life advice. A great aspect of nonprofit work is that we tend to get to know our colleagues on a fairly personal basis. After three years at my job, I've learned to rely on several of my co-workers for key life advice. Working right down the hall from friends who have 20-plus years of work and life experience over me is an invaluable asset.
  6. Find ways to connect with other young nonprofit professionals. Enter here my shameless plug for YNPN-TC. One of the reasons I joined the YNPN Board of Directors is to connect with nonprofit folks who are at a similar point in their career. Getting involved in YNPN events has been both a great networking opportunity and a refreshing change of pace. 
  7. Voice your new ideas. You likely have fresh and innovative ideas on a number of topics. Don’t be afraid to voice them! You probably have a better sense of how to reach your own generation with marketing and programming activities. You never know—your ideas may be just the thing to bring your organization to the next level.

I know I'm not the only one who's experienced being the youngest person at a nonprofit office. What are your experiences? What additional tips can you offer to young nonprofit professionals working at intergenerational workplaces?

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