An Open Letter to Young Activists: A Gen Xer Weighs in on Baby Boomers v. Gen Y

I just read the discussion on Rosetta Thurman's excellent blog about “Does Generation Y Discriminate Against Baby Boomers? Or Is It the Other Way Around?” As a Gen-Xer, I'm supposedly in the middle, though I'm sometimes the young one or the old one, depending on the crowd.

A number of people commenting on Rosetta's blog felt that 20 somethings get the short end of the stick. I don't see it as that simple.

When I was in my 20's, most older colleagues were respectful and encouraging, seeking my input and ideas. Some, however, assumed that I was only there for the lowest skilled tasks. In practical terms I knew it didn't make sense for someone with much more skill and experience to do the mailings. I just needed a balance between the "tasks" and substantive projects, and some respect along the way.

Flash forward to me at 42. I can now see there were things I didn't understand in my twenties, such as how much experience matters. It's through trial and error that we learn our biggest lessons, at work or in life. That doesn't mean young leaders aren't important and shouldn't get support, but sometimes experience gets dismissed way too quickly. Just ask Craig Ferguson.

I value the input of younger colleagues because I value people of ALL ages. I love working with children, actually, because they have so much to say that adults need to hear. I also love talking with people much older than I am, especially activists. It's humbling to hear what they've done under circumstances I can barely imagine. And I think that's what matters -- that we don't dismiss each other no matter where we fall on the age spectrum.

Most of my younger colleagues have been talented, hardworking people who also respect experience. As a boss, I actively seek their input while trying to be the best mentor I can. I want them to have it a little easier than I did. I've been rewarded with long relationships with wonderful social change advocates years after we worked together. 

The other, much smaller group, has usually been recent graduates who mistake a degree with knowing a lot. Studying is valuable, but no degree prepares you for a cantankerous member of Congress or a hard to please donor. These young people sometimes have good ideas, or they have terrible ideas that they won't let go of, convinced that the rest of us are dismissing them out of ageism. I've had entitled young activists expect funding for projects just because they deemed them important. (If only it was that easy!) I've had interns tell me how to do my job. I've had entry level staff whine about being "unfulfilled" or bored. I've seen young board members insist that a physician's social change organization should broaden its mission to include anything that medical students would want to work on -- anything!

I find that younger people sometimes don't understand key things about the older people they critique. One is that we haven't forgotten what it's like to be your age. Another is that for every dull task you hate, we have financials to read at 10pm or board conference calls on weekends. The Executive Director wants you to copy those board packets because her time is better spent solving a fundraising crisis that's been keeping her up at night.

Also, most of us have worked our tails off and would like some respect for it. And women or people of color or anyone who experiences bias has worked especially hard. The older the person you're talking about, the harder they've had it, often in ways the youngest people can't fathom. (My stepmother got asked in a job interview what kind of birth control she used, which was perfectly legal at the time.) Women, in particular, have huge challenges in getting into leadership positions and in making work-family choices -- all for less money and respect than male colleagues get. Sure, we higher ups have some of the more interesting work. But we didn't start out there, and it's not all fun. Actually, the higher up you go, the more pressure you have.

Bottom line: If you really want to be a leader, then be one. Make yourself indispensable. Study your organization from every angle and develop the skills that will give you the biggest boost. Learn how to raise funds. When you want to suggest change, listen carefully and then craft the best approach. That's how you'll need to approach policymakers, the media and funders, anyhow. Develop relationships with people like me who are eager to work with you. And if your organization isn't going to make the changes you need anytime soon, find a new one or start your own. Keep looking for new opportunities everywhere, and remember that the best ones often take you in unexpected directions.

Basically, do the very thing your older colleagues did before you.