Recently, I attended an event where a Boomer leader was presenting. Various times throughout his PowerPoint presentation, he experienced technical difficulties and called on a Millennial colleague to rescue him. As I watched the young colleague respond and resolve very basic issues, I was reminded of the deep need for understanding and engaging in reverse mentoring in our inter-generational relationships.
Reverse mentoring is a two-way relationship where individuals learn from one another across generational or cultural lines. This concept has been around for a couple of decades, but has gained popularity in many professional circles in the past decade. Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, explains its importance: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the technology of our future.” Author and cultural expert, Earl Creps, further explains, “The rate of change in our culture puts younger people in touch with things for which their elders sometimes even lack the vocabulary, suggesting the need to go beyond intergenerational tolerance to reconciliation that leads to a new collaboration.”
One definition of mentor is “trusted counselor or guide.” We have traditionally viewed mentoring as primarily an opportunity for those older and wiser to impart their knowledge to those younger or less experienced. This works well when the culture or context is stable and predictable, and we can assume that what worked in the past will work in the future. However, in a season of cultural and technological change such as we are witnessing around us today, the patterns of yesterday may need revision to be effective in the days ahead. We must be prepared to learn from the future as well as the past. Young people intuitively understand elements of the future that can remain hidden to those who are older. Nonetheless, they often lack the wisdom and maturity that comes from years of life and leadership. This is where a partnership between the two becomes incredibly powerful, offering the potential for maximizing the strengths of both perspectives. In this sense, both parties have insight that can place them in the role of counselor or guide.
Earl Creps explains that reverse mentoring “uses the unlikely possibility of a relationship to benefit both parties through mutual learning from honesty and humility.” These elements of honesty and humility are essential to the success of a reverse mentoring relationship. Each party must acknowledge their need for learning. They must be willing to ask questions, listen and step outside of their comfort zone to engage new ideas, skills and perspectives. In doing so, we expose ourselves to an expert in topics and practices that we might otherwise spend time and money learning about through podcasts, books, or seminars.
As I observed the Boomer leader needing technical assistance during his presentation, I was struck by the fact that he expected the Millennials in that audience to learn from what he had to say. However, it appeared that he had not made an effort ahead of time to learn from one of them more about his computer. The irony of this picture is repeated frequently in inter-generational relationships. We must be willing to seek out and invest in relationships with those both younger and older than ourselves. As I think about the individuals who I am learning from in my life right now, many of them are 20 years older or younger than I am. I am thankful for their incredibly diverse and important perspectives that stretch and challenge me. Who are those powerful mentors in your life?
We are living in a pivotal chapter of our nation’s story. A tumultuous time in biblical history holds great perspective for us as we navigate significant changes in America today. The story of God’s people in the Old Testament, like the experiences of people throughout history, is riddled with conflict, challenges, and change.
One of the most dramatic seasons of change for Judah was undoubtedly the Babyonian invasion, and resulting exile, that occurred beginning in 607 B.C. The first chapter of the book of Daniel recounts the initial invasion: "In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia." We can only imagine the anguish and distress these couple of sentences represented for the people of God. It is difficult for us as believers today to understand all that the temple meant to God’s people then.
Verse two of chapter one says: “And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God.” The dramatic devastation and change in the lives of His people was not a surprise to God. In fact, the Scripture says that it was the Lord who gave Nebuchadezzar success. Twenty years after this initial invasion, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and destroying the temple.
The meaning and traditions tied to the temple, articles from the temple, and the city of Jerusalem are monumental, as ongoing conflicts yet today testify. Nonetheless, God allowed an ungodly leader’s success in capturing, destroying and carrying off key elements of worship and religion in Judah. Why? What can we learn from Judah’s history as we navigate our own season of transition?
America is in significant cultural upheaval. Perspectives are changing. Values that were once held dear are being discarded. Established institutions and methods are being questioned and often rejected. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the church is being forced to grapple with significant questions. In many cases, it can feel like the temple has been invaded, that the articles of the temple are being carried off into a foreign land by strangers who do not appreciate what they represent. The battering rams are pounding on the gates, and every faith-based institution--from missions agencies, to churches, schools, non-profit organizations, seminaries, publishing houses, and advocacy groups--is facing an identity crisis. I imagine some of the emotions felt by Christian leaders today reflect those of Judah’s leaders when the Babylonian soldiers entered Jerusalem.
Here is what encourages me: God was not shocked by Nebuchadezzar’s actions, and God is definitely not surprised by the changes we are facing today! In fact, Scripture points to the fact that many who went into exile prospered where God had placed them (Jeremiah 29). Of course, it was not what they wanted, but it was what they needed. Decades later, when God opened the door for some of them to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, there was a renewed sense of purpose, focus, and dedication to the Lord.
The book of Daniel continues with the story of Daniel and his three faithful friends. Carried from Judah to Babylon, and forced into service in the king’s palace, these young men represented a transitional generation. They developed as leaders in the midst of upheaval for their people and led in a place and culture foreign to the mentors and leaders of their youth. In this regard, I believe they resemble young leaders today. God is raising up a remnant of young, godly leaders who will succeed as Daniel and his friends did in leading faithfully in the midst of adverse or complex situations. They are a Daniel Generation. Theirs is not an easy path; it will require sacrifice, wisdom, surrender and faith. In some ways, young people today are poorly equipped for the challenges they will face. This is where inter-generational understanding, mentoring, collaboration and leadership are critical. Leaders of all ages must engage to seek timely wisdom, and share perspectives, skills, and truths that will be needed in the days ahead.
It is important to note that if Daniel and his friends had refused to learn the language and literature of their new culture, they would have been ineffective. Instead, they successfully advised and served powerful and ungodly leaders in the land. For young leaders today, the challenge is to walk as Daniel did. He did not succumb to the influences and temptations of the culture around him, yet he did learn to navigate it and allow God to use him within it. We need the wisdom and favor that God gave Daniel to walk with truth, grace, and influence. It is time for a Daniel Generation to live and serve faithfully amid an ungodly culture, in humility glorifying the one true God!
It happened again just last week. A gentleman at a roundtable I was facilitating made the argument that Millennials are just like any other generation. There are indeed life cycle effects—things that are similar for every generation at specific seasons of life. Most of us know better than everyone else when we are 25, right?! However, there are period and cohort effects that give each generation unique perspectives. The recession of 2008 could be considered a period effect…how it influenced a 22-year-old who had $50,000 in student loans and no job prospects was different than how it affected a 60-year-old who lost their job of 30 years and half of their retirement savings. One result for that 22-year-old is that he or she is unlikely to have the same confidence as older generations to commit 30 years to one job or rely on the stability of investing in a home or retirement funds. Unfortunately, this will often be criticized as irresponsibility or a lack of commitment, rather than a survival instinct!
While period effects, how events influence us at specific points in our life, are significant to the development of any generational cohort, I believe it is the cohort effects that truly make Millennials one of the most unique generations in American history. Cohort effects are how trends influence us during critical developmental stages of life. When we look at Millennials, we see the confluence of several incredibly significant changes occurring in our culture and society as they were in formative seasons of life. This has resulted in not just a generation gap between them and older generations, but also a cultural gap. The resulting worldview emerging in younger generations today is fundamentally different from that of previous generations.
So, what are the cohort effects most influential in the development of Millennials (and following generations)? Of course things like technology and globalization have been significant. Research is now showing that the brains of young people who have been exposed to technology since young ages, for extended periods of time, are actually wired differently. We know that the way communication occurs now is different. In many ways there is nothing new under the sun, but the way old issues manifest has changed. For example, there is still marital infidelity. Whereas an affair was more likely to occur for a working parent at the office while putting in long hours, it is now just as likely for an emotional affair to involve a stay-at-home parent who reconnects with an old friend on social media. While Millennials were introduced to many forms of technology much later in their lives than Generation Z, they represent the first generation of digital natives.
Philosophies of parenting and education also underwent significant changes as Millennials were born. Many of these trends are continuing with Generation Z. Of course, involved parenting, often termed “helicopter parenting,” has been perhaps the most significant of these trends. The self-esteem movement, where everyone gets a trophy, is closely related. Another significant trend that receives less attention is the focus on student-centered learning in education, which has added to the societal focus on providing what a child wants or needs. Like other trends, it has at times stripped young people of opportunities to learn how to overcome obstacles, solve problems on their own, or deal with failure and disappointment.
Most significant of the cohort effects, however, is the fact that Millennials represent the first generation of post-modern natives. Peter Drucker, in his book Post-Capitalist Society, explains, “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation…society rearranges itself…its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions…we are currently living through just such a transformation.” Postmodernism, a response to the failing promises of the modern era, with its reliance on systems, science, logic and reason to solve our problems, has been the impetus for this transformation. David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, describes, “Somewhere between 1968 and 1972, we see postmodernism emerge as a full-blown though still incoherent movement out of the chrysalis of the anti-modern movement of the 1960s.”
So, what does this post-modern movement mean for Millennials? As it unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, it gradually worked its influence into the fabric of our society. By the time Millennials began arriving in the 1980s, post-modern ideas were firmly at work in our education system, media and popular culture. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with predominantly post-modern values. While some of them still identify with modern values based on their particular upbringing or education, they belong to a peer culture that adheres to a post-modern worldview, a peer group of post-modern natives.
What are some of the key differences between a modern mindset and a post-modern perspective? As mentioned earlier, the modern era relied heavily on science, logic and facts. Postmodernity values experience, emotion and stories. As a result, decisions made by Millennials and Generation Z are often influenced by feelings versus reason. The rigid systems, hierarchies and structures of modernity are giving way to organic processes, open participation, and networks. Collaborative education has taught students the value of working together, engaging in a process, sometimes without concern for a specific outcome or result. Perhaps the most significant difference is related to views of truth. Modern perspectives held to absolute truth that could be discovered and proven. Postmodern perspectives hold pluralistic views of truth to be equal and believe they are defined in the context of community. As a result, we often find those of older generations strongly committed to their views of truth, whereas younger generations are much more open-minded, but can struggle to articulate personal convictions.
While there are many more differences and nuances, the points above begin to illustrate the fact that we are truly facing a cross-cultural gap as we seek engage across generations. This gap does not always neatly fall along generational lines, with many older individuals identifying with postmodern views and some younger ones still grounded in modern perspectives. However, Millennials are unique as they represent the turning point, the cusp of the transformation occurring in our society, the first cohort of postmodern natives.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!