I work in an office where most people are older than me by a few years up to a couple of decades. Many of the people I work with are my parents age and a few are actually older. There are many times when I don’t get the pop culture references they make or know the celebrities they reference. I’m sure they do not always know the actors or pop culture that I reference either. However, in my three years working there I know that I have learned some valuable lessons and been blessed by conversations, new perspectives, and experience. I hope that they might have also enjoyed working with me as well.
Recently, my wife and I watched The Intern and I felt like it really encapsulated a lot of my experience working in a multi-generational workspace and really offered some great insights into the struggles but also the benefits of this arrangement. The basic premise is that a widowed and retired Ben Whittaker is bored and looking for something to fill his now open schedule. He eventually applies for a “senior intern” program at a start-up online shopping site About the Fit run by the young and driven Jules Ostin. Jules is reluctant to take help from anyone and is not eager to indulge this “senior intern” idea but eventually sees value in Ben and the rest of her team.
The first insight that captured by attention was that Ben, though experienced and skilled, never attempted to take the reins from the often frazzled Jules. It seems to one problem with inter-generational relationships both in workplaces and churches is that often young people are not truly given the permission or ability to lead. Paul Alexander wrote a great article about how to develop young leaders and in it he mentions that opportunity to lead and authority to actually do so are key in the process. It would have been easier or at least faster for Ben to take over Jules’ work or to solve her problems but he doesn’t. Instead there are several scenes in which Ben affirms Jules’ ability to lead and lines up behind the decision she makes. In the end this helps Jules to develop into a better leader and allows her to see Ben as a friend and mentor.
A second valuable insight I captured from the movie is that each person is allowed to dress in ways that are comfortable and appropriate. Ben comes to work on the first day of the internship dressed like he most likely did everyday at his previous job: a nice suit with a tie and handkerchief. Jules informs him that he doesn’t have to dress up and that the office is casual but she doesn’t force him to conform. In allowing Ben to be himself and dress comfortable she allows him to be his authentic self and not force him to act like someone he is not. Ben, though questioning some of the fashion choices of his male colleagues, doesn’t force any of them to change either. Over time a few start dressing differently because of his influence but none would ever be mistaken for a elderly businessman. As a young pastor I find that many people are looking at what I wear. I was expected to wear suits to church even though the rest of the congregation was wearing slacks and a button-up shirt with no tie. I couldn’t wear shorts in the summer and there where always a few women who would inspect my clothes to see if they were sufficiently ironed. I understand that looking professional is important but I also wonder how we are to reach other Millennials if we are dressed like their grandparents all the time.
A third take-away from the movie was the over time the younger coworkers began to invest in Ben. They taught him how to use his computer and how to set up his Facebook page. In doing so without frustration they built a relationship instead of shutting one down. I spend a lot of time teaching new technology to some of my colleagues at work; however, in doing so I have found that many are eager to learn. The time we have spent together has given me opportunity to hear their stories and perspectives on things and I have learned some great lessons. Technology is here to stay and most people will be able to learn it and use it. These tools will help us be productive and efficient in our work but we have to remember that others have done the same work without the technology for years so there is going to be some time invested in helping them adapt. We can’t change that but the attitude we adopt in the process will effect what possible relationships we build or lose.
Summing it all up I guess the main point is that we have to stop seeing people as generational stereotypes and as people. Old doesn’t mean irrelevant and young doesn’t mean incapable. Young people can be and are great leaders, both in the corporate world and in the church. If we want to see more, which I know most churches are looking for “young people to come to church” and young leaders to “step up and do their share”. Then we must make space for them to lead in real capacities. Different generations working together will mean that we have to let some cultural preferences, like dress style, be allowed even if it isn’t our personal preference. Finally, young leaders we must be open to those who are older. We can’t brush them off or get frustrated when they don’t know how to open a Google Doc or connect through DropBox. We can use these teaching moments as relationship builders and gain valuable wisdom ourselves. At the end of the movie Ben, Jules, and the company were better off because of the value brought by the inter-generational relationships in the workplace. We have the same opportunity in our churches as we bring out the best in each other’s experience and knowledge.