Four years ago, after a thirty-year career in private equity, I ventured out to independently invest in and advise growth companies. While I had an extensive existing network, I found that I had to build a new network of relationships to access the promising growth companies in which I hoped to invest. The experience of boomer meets millennial was tremendously productive for me. In four years, I’ve invested in a dozen companies, all but three led by leaders under 35. Several additional opportunities, many “friend-tor” (friend who is a mentor) relationships and real joy have come from these new connections.
As much as millennials yearn for mentors who can help provide advice and guidance, baby boomers should seek out young people to not only give back and share their knowledge, but to accrue the multitude of benefits such connections can bring. There is so much to gain, however there are hurdles to forming these connections.
Americans have become an age segregated society, and our intergenerational connections are weak. While technology has accelerated our ability to be digitally connected, it has reduced our experience of meeting people in person to have genuine and deep conversations. A Generations United/Eisner Foundation survey found that millennials were the most isolated with limited acquaintances from other generations and with over 64% saying they are “unsure how to talk to people who are significantly older or younger than they are.” This is not surprising since only 20% of the U.S. population live with multi-generations under one roof and digital interaction is so pervasive.
Similarly, according to Gen2Gen, a non-profit connecting older adults with youth, only 6% of Americans over 60 said they had discussed “important matters” in the past six months with someone younger than 36 who was not a relative.
Those who can bridge this divide reap real rewards. The famous Harvard Study of Adult Development which tracked the lives of over 700 men for 75 years showed that those who had deeper intergenerational relationships were 3x as likely to be happy as those that didn’t invest in others. Forging these ties doesn’t just reduce loneliness and increase overall happiness. Importantly, it presents new job opportunities, it opens a view to future trends, it helps spread information, shares expertise and it brings genuine gratification. All these result from expanding your network beyond your peer group and existing contacts.
There are some infrastructural hurdles than need to be overcome to facilitate these cross-generational relationships. Schools, housing and work environments need to be less age siloed. But the more difficult challenge is changing personal perceptions and behavior. Older adults may not feel the need or urgency to be pro-active in making these connections. They may fear that they might not be able to relate or even understand the millennial mindset. Similarly, millennials worry about approaching someone older and successful fearing that the older person won’t make the time to talk or to help them.
Here are three ways baby boomers can take the initiative to bridge the gap and overcome societal and personal hurdles (the three ‘C’s):
1. Commit and plan it out.
This may be the hardest step, but any effort requires a commitment and an action plan. Commit to building your multi-generational network. Enlist the help of those you already know. Reach out to young people who are a 1st or 2nd degree connection from you through family, neighbors, friends or colleagues. If you have kids, they can be great sources of potential contacts. Engage with them and enlist them as your supporters. Start close to home and spread out over time. Re-engage with former employers to help them develop promising young employees. Find volunteer opportunities through your own community or beyond (click link for a terrific Toolkit).
2. Connect and build the relationship.
When networking is approached with a spirit of generosity, it takes on a new dimension. You are not looking to get, you are seeking to give. Three techniques help with this effort.
Listen to connect. Few people genuinely listen with the intent to understand and to learn, to find what is meaningful to the other. Suspend judgments and preconceptions. Make the interaction safe with no criticisms. Listen more, talk less.
Ask thoughtful questions. The goal is to understand by digging deeper and showing your interest. Find out what matters to your new contact.
What do you mean by ____? Tell me more….
What are your goals and objectives? What’s important to you?
Describe what you would like your life to be like in 5–10 years?
Find common interests. Whether it’s a love of Asian cuisine or road biking, personal interests can become the glue to furthering your relationships. Ask a young person what they enjoy doing in their free time. Expand your horizons by asking them their favorite apps, bars or activities. Young people are the window into the future. Explore that future with them.
3. Continue to find ways to be helpful.
There are countless ways to continue the conversation with someone who is open to it.
Give the gift of introductions. Connecting people to one another is one of the best gifts you can give. Be generous with your network. Help others who can help one another by connecting them.
Extend the invitation. Share experiences with others. Invite someone new to an event or conference. Have breakfast or lunch meetings with small groups of new contacts so they can meet others too.
Be generous with your time. Help others achieve their goals by sharing knowledge, advice and expertise.
It takes both courage and curiosity to get this right (two more ‘C’s). For both personal and professional relationships, opportunities abound, but you have to make the effort. More companies will be hiring older workers. Many executives are looking for mentors and coaches. Start-ups need investors and advisors. Neighborhoods and schools need those with wisdom and time. We all need to place ourselves in age integrated situations.
You’ve had a successful career. You’ve developed an amazing and broad network. You still have a lot to offer in terms of experience and wisdom. As you look to the next phase of your life’s journey, rather than forge ahead, turn around. Seek out those who are earlier in their journeys and give them a hand. It is never too late to build the bridges to the next generations. There are so many ways to engage. By making someone else’s life better, you will be making yours more meaningful too.
Pat Hedley is an investor in and advisor to growth companies. She is also the author of Meet 100 People, A How to Guide to the Career Edge Everyone’s Missing. See www.meet100people.com for more on Pat’s book.