A couple of years ago, Millennials (b. 1980-1995) officially surpassed Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964) as the largest component of the workforce in America. As Generation Z (b. 1996-2012) now starts to graduate from college, Millennials are taking more leadership roles, and Boomers are continuing to retire. The influence of younger generations working in our companies, organizations, and churches continues to grow. While young leaders bring many beneficial perspectives and needed sills to the workplace, they sometimes lack other essential leadership skills that are becoming less common in our culture today.
One of my favorite movies is The Intern, a film starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. It beautifully depicts the value and necessity of inter-generational relationships, and why we desperately need older leaders and mentors who refuse to fully retire. Hathaway plays the role of a young, highly successful Millennial entrepreneur who struggles to find balance between her demanding, evolving role and her young family. De Niro, a widower, is a retired professional whose old job in printing is all but obsolete. As a retiree, he does it all...learns Mandarin, tries yoga, and travels extensively. He becomes dissatisfied, however, with this lifestyle and applies for an internship at Hathaway’s company.
As an older intern, working for a Millennial entrepreneur, De Niro’s character represents what mature, wise, and sacrificial leaders have to offer to the younger generations. First, he was present. Ignored by his Millennial boss at first, he spent his days sitting in front of a computer with nothing to do. So, he engaged with the young interns to his right and left. He got to know the employees. He helped with various tasks and was just there: available and consistent. He wore a suit and carried his old-school briefcase. His calm and thoughtful presence became a gift to young, frazzled professionals around him.
Second, he was observant. Years as a professional had taught him to notice and appreciate skills and dynamics often lost on younger people. As a result, he was able to ask questions, provide assistance, or give counsel and affirmation that others overlooked. His input changed the lives of those he interacted with daily.
Third, he was patient. The young people around him often failed to acknowledge his contribution and wisdom. He remained constant, patiently doing his work and just being himself. Eventually, he found his boss asking him for help and advice, fellow employees recognizing and celebrating his significant contributions that changed the organizational culture, and his fellow interns wearing suits and buying briefcases. He had earned the right to be heard, followed, and imitated. His example and presence proved influential to young professionals who were learning and forming habits that would follow them for the rest of their careers.
Mentoring young leaders is not a task for the faint of heart. It requires personal sacrifice and humility. Often, experienced leaders find it easier to just withdraw or surround themselves with those in a similar stage of life. Sadly, this often results in the wisdom and experience they possess failing to become a legacy that will follow them for generations to come.
So, I propose that the talented, wise, and mature leaders in our midst shouldn’t retire, at least not entirely. They may at some point retire from formal leadership roles or positions. In some cases, they may allow others to take more prominent roles to gain experience and have influence. Nonetheless, we desperately need them to stay engaged in the lives of those young leaders around them—in their families, churches, communities, and organizations—to never retire from the work of mentoring and encouraging those who will lead us tomorrow.
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!