Can baby boomers searching for answers to the challenges of ageism look to millennials for lessons in self-empowerment?
The culture of aging is changing as more and more boomers seek to remain active, productive and purposefully engaged. Two-thirds plan to work past age 65, or do not plan to retire at all, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Those plans should be seen as a positive trend. For older individuals, work is associated with better health, increased financial security and a stronger sense of purpose. For employers and the broader society, research confirms that older workers bring wisdom, beneficial experience and emotional balance to improve work environments and performance.
Yet widespread ageism frustrates both individual goals and realization of the value that an aging population provides. AARP research found that approximately two-thirds of workers ages 45 to 74 say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Of those, 92 percent say age discrimination is very or somewhat common. Ageism is not only wrong, it impedes opportunity for both individuals and institutions, and comes at high societal cost. Even as boomers challenge convention, slowly breaking through the barriers of traditional retirement to establish new norms, ageism makes progress that much more difficult.
Millennial examples can help.
Millennials came of age during the Great Recession. Like boomers who face negative age bias, millennials are navigating rough economic waters. Without answers and assistance from external sources, millennials are taking on the challenges of progressing in their lives, and self-empowerment is part of their response.
When baby boomers congregate, a source of conversation—and sometimes consternation—is what to make of millennials in their families and workplaces. "They're always texting and tweeting. They're still living at home and not saving for the future. They're job hoppers. We're supporting them!"
Millennials do rely on boomers. That's as it should be. Many boomers support their adult children and mentor young co-workers. The benefits in these relationships are generally seen as flowing downhill—from old to young. But that's a narrow view. As boomers seek to overcome their own challenges, there are important lessons to be learned from millennial counterparts. It's time to recognize that the benefits in boomer-millennial relationships can flow powerfully both ways.
Millennials are technologically literate. Digital natives, they know how to build and expand relationship networks. In fact, three-quarters have created a profile on a social networking site, according to Pew Research Center. To identify opportunities for work, volunteerism and new experience, boomers should strengthen existing relationships and develop new ones, employing the tools of technology. With a significant majority of employers using social media to recruit talent, boomers can empower themselves by following the millennial lead and connecting.
Millennials are the most educated generation, and they understand that learning can be realized on campus, online and from multiple sources. To refresh and expand their education and ready themselves for the demands of a knowledge-based society, boomers can pursue a wider range of lifelong learning options.
Millennials are diverse and inclusive, socially responsible, and are the most receptive generation to immigrants, according to Pew. In a changing society, boomers effectiveness and opportunity will be measured by their ability to successfully work with others of varied backgrounds and disparate styles. Millennials' openness provides a guiding model.
Millennials value collaboration, peer relationships and mentorship. As they search for new possibilities and confront the challenges of ageist environments, boomers can more openly to ask for—and offer—support, assistance, connections and constructive ideas.
Millennials are known for being more attracted to experiences and access than to ownership of things. As boomers progress, the possessions that often mattered most—homes, cars and the like—become less important. Millennial priorities can inform a new examination of values and pathways to meaning and beneficial purpose for boomers.
These are just a few examples of the lessons in self-empowerment that boomers can take from millennial relationships. The benefits of intergenerational engagement do flow powerfully both ways, providing opportunities for young and old, and the promise of a better future for all.
Paul Irving is Chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology.