Jack Kavanagh, 86, of Brookline, Mass., has been a Red Cross volunteer for 15 years, working 47 deployments to help at natural disaster sites from hurricanes to floods to tornadoes.
Kavanagh, a member of the silent generation that was born between 1928 to 1945, said he brings years of experience to the nonprofit organization, while different generations bring fresh ideas or new energy. He works with volunteers and staffers as young as 18, meaning five generations are in the mix of the Red Cross’ 300,000 U.S. volunteers.
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“Everybody brings different skills,” Kavanagh said.
“The strongest attribute people can bring to a disaster situation is ‘Are they willing to listen, willing to learn?’” Kavanagh said. “The intergenerational thing has not been an issue. I think it helps a lot. It helps to have people coming into the system and learning. We’re all learning, some of us have just been through a few more things.”
Kavanagh said he’s learned to lead by example and to not force lessons on people.
He said he’s also learned from his younger counterparts, such as the time a teenage volunteer gave a hug to a man who lost everything in a hurricane that hit just six months after his wife had died. A simple hug was what was needed at the time and the young co-worker sensed that.
“Never let doing things the right way get in the way of doing the right thing,” Kavanagh said. “You have to trust your instincts and that gets developed over time.”
Those in the silent generation are working mostly because they want to keep busy, fit and mentally alert, said Catherine Collinson, chief executive and president of the nonprofit Transamerica Institute and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
“The silent generation — they’re precious. So special. The extent that any of us have to work with them is an opportunity to learn from them,” said Collinson. “They may not be in the workforce much longer, given their age, so learn from them now.”
Baby boomers, meanwhile, tend to have more positive outlooks on life than their younger cohorts, and they’re less likely to feel anxious, depressed or isolated as Gen Z, Collinson said Collinson, based on the research of nonprofit Transamerica Institute and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Younger workers, however, bring their recent education and urgency of life experience.
Bringing different generational outlooks, experiences and skills together is “a recipe for magic,” Collison said.
That benefit can get overlooked by companies, which often fail to put age as a factor in their diversity, equity and inclusion education programs. Transamerica found that of those companies with a diversity program, only 34% mention age. That’s not much, but it’s still better than other studies that put the age inclusion at work as low as 8%.
Of course, it’s not always five generations of intergenerational bliss and kumbaya. Everyone has different styles and ways of doing things and there’s a lack of training at companies about how to interact.
For example, 84% of companies said they are age friendly, but only 65% of workers agreed, according to Transamerica.
A 2020 study by Deloitte found that 70% of organizations say multigenerational workforces are important or very important to their success, but only 10% are well prepared to address the trend.
“We can be stronger if we tap into different beliefs and talents,” said Marci Alboher, vice president, narrative change at CoGenerate, which works to bring older and younger people together to solve problems. “A workforce comprised of just one group – you don’t even know what you’re missing because you all have the same voice. You never want a homogeneous group when you’re trying to get creative thoughts going.”
With five generations at work, it’s a useful skill in society to be able to work with different ages, Alboher said.
“The workplace is constantly changing and evolving,” Alboher said. “Of course there can be pain points and tensions – you have to be a good listener.”
CoGenerate released a 2022 survey conducted by NORC, one of the largest independent social research organizations, at the University of Chicago found that 90% of Americans said that working across generations can help America better solve social problems and reduce cultural divisions.
Still, a 2021 study by Stanford Center on Longevity found that, despite there being about equal numbers of people of every chronological age from 0 to 70 and older, “cross-age relationships are extremely rare.”
“This is an immense lost opportunity because intergenerational relationships can be a transformational tool for productivity, meaning, and justice,” the Stanford Center on Longevity said.
Francesca Frederic, 33, a phlebotomist who works for the Red Cross, said she learned a lot from Kavanagh, citing his knowledge, wisdom and outlook on life. Younger cohorts, however, have taught her social media skills, not to mention a few dance moves, Frederic said.
“It’s like working with people from different states, different cultures. There’s something to be learned from everyone. And there’s something to teach everyone, as well,” Frederic said.
Intergenerational work can also be good for business.
At the AIMS Colorado Conference in 2022, hotel entrepreneur Chip Conley recalled how he had been recruited years earlier by then-tech upstart Airbnb to bring his hospitality and travel expertise.
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At Airbnb, the average age of employees at the time was 26 years old and none of them had hospitality experience. They recruited Conley, who built and sold a boutique hotel chain called Joie de Vivre and was in his 50s at the time, to be their “modern elder.”
“I was not just the mentor, I was also the intern,” Conley said in a video at the conference. “I was learning as much from them at the same time.”
Conley later founded the Modern Elder Academy, a school dedicated to helping people navigate midlife.
“Airbnb would not be what it is today if not for that intergenerational collaboration,” Collinson said.