Embracing Generational Diversity
Indeed, no one saw this coming. If you asked any leader in January (even February) of 2020 if they foresaw a national quarantine that would forcibly shut down businesses, churches, whole communities, even an entire nation, the solid bet is that they would answer with a hard “No.” And yet, it happened.
The result? We are a nation divided that is wrestling with two terrible choices: 1) Open the country, which could result in another increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths; or 2) Keep the country closed, which could result in more suffering (even deaths) due to a looming economic disaster. A rock and a hard place scenario like one never seen before.
The reality? Ten, twenty years from now, history will be the judge of what was right, who offered leadership in the face of unprecedented adversity, and which decisions alleviated suffering and which deepened the pain. And yet, in the here and now, we are called to lead. To lead people who are struggling. To offer hope to communities that are in despair.
So, what do we do?
Generations working together
I would suggest that we look to God’s Word and our communities for the solutions we need in moments like these. More precisely, it is in times of dire straits such as these that the very makeup of our communities, the design of society as interconnected networks of generationally diverse peoples, offers us the greatest opportunity to thrive amidst adversity.
The Bible offers us countless examples of different generations working effectively together to navigate difficult circumstances.
Let’s start here. The Bible offers us countless examples of different generations working effectively together to navigate difficult circumstances. Moses turned to his Father-in-Law Jethro in Exodus 18 to find a solution to an ineffective system of governing. Paul instructed Timothy to let no one despise his youth or the leadership he brought to the community in 1 Timothy 4.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, together generations conquered cities and nations (e.g., Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land). In the New Testament, different age groups laid the foundations for “The Way” (e.g., Jesus’ disciples and the early church apostles) that would eventually become the global church today. In moments of great trial, the recipe for success has always been the same. People come together across different demographics (e.g., ethnicity, gender, class, and generation) to tackle the issues of their time head-on. This practice was true in ancient times. It was the reality after 9/11. It must be the course again today. The lesson: God’s design is for different age cohorts within society to work, live, and help each other thrive together.
Our challenge? As it has been throughout history, we lose sight of the possibility different generations offer our communities. Older generations see those behind them as threats to longevity, norms and systems they have spent years and energy building. Younger generations see the older as impediments to progress, innovation and opportunity.
Dr. Phyllis Tickle (the theologian and author of works such as The Great Emergence: How Christianity is changing and why (Baker Books, Reprint ed., 2012) used the metaphor of a boat tied to a dock to describe the often tense relationship between the young and old(er). More precisely, sometimes they come together, while at other times they are pulled apart by the wind and waves. Yet, they are still dependent upon one another to fulfill their purpose. Both a beautiful picture of symbiosis and a cautionary tale, this metaphor drives home the reality that we need each other, especially in a storm.
Where do we go from here?
So, where do we go from here? Given our interdependence, how do we leverage the possibility of generational diversity to navigate crises like this pandemic? Here are three tips:
- Embrace God’s design for a kindred community.
- Tear down the conscious and unconscious systems that segregate your community.
- Build intentional cross-generational partnerships to realize greater innovation and maximize opportunities.
First, a generationally diverse community is God’s design. We see time and again throughout the biblical narrative that God calls generations both to him and to each other. Thus, what better example to follow than to embrace the relationships in our midst? When was the last time you reached out to someone younger/older than yourself? When did you last have a meal or get some coffee with someone from a different generation? If recently, did you listen during the conversation, or did you have an agenda other than simply getting to know them? We realize the possibility of these relationships through our proximity and availability to those who come from a different time than our own.
Second, we must take stock of the intended and unintended ways we have separated generations in our communities. Where do the demarcation lines fall between generations in your organization? How has your leadership (or culture) consciously or unconsciously built up walls between different age cohorts? These barriers may be in the form of generational church ministries that rarely worship together, or organizational structures that limit youth to marketing and technology roles that keep them out of our board rooms. Either way, these structural barriers prevent us from fully leveraging the ideas and opportunities that are available through the cross-pollination of different generations.
Third, like any healthy relationship (especially a strong marriage!) partnerships only work with intentionality. Yes, they can be messy. There is often hurt and pain. However, the joy that comes from working to become “one,” as the Bible says, is what helps us thrive. I would argue that the same is true in any relationship. While you may not be working to become one person as in a marriage, the goal is to work, live and thrive in harmony. As one friend of mine put it, “The goal is to partner strength with strength to realize the kingdom goals God has called us to.”
How have you recently partnered across generations to realize a goal?
How have you recently partnered across generations to realize a goal? When was the last time you invited someone from a different age cohort to learn from you? To teach you? Throughout history, we see the fruit of cross-generational partnerships leading to great innovation. I imagine that if you were to ask Mark Zuckerburg if Facebook would be what it is without the mentors and older leaders in his life, he would say no.
Jeff Havens, author of such works as Us vs. Them: Redefining the multi-generational workplace to inspire your employees to love your company, drive innovation, and embrace change (Pearson FT Press, 2015), put it best: “Young People, you need the Old(er) People you work with to teach you patience, to give you perspective, and to show you what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. Without them and the benefit of their advice, you’ll end up wasting an enormous amount of time trying to reinvent the wheel. […] Old(er) People, you need the Young People you work with to look at your business with fresh eyes, to ask questions that are difficult to answer, and to help you navigate the world at the speed at which it moves today.”
This divide is the challenge in a season such as the one in which we currently find ourselves. Do we turn away from those around us, or do we turn inward into the community God has given us? Do we embrace both wisdom and knowledge, both caution and courage, or do we treat them as if they are mutually exclusive?
The beautiful quilt that God wove together out of our generational diversity should sustain us through crises like this pandemic. However, if we continue to pull at the threads, letting the bonds that bind us to continue to fray, we will soon find ourselves out in the cold and unable to weather the storm.
Dr. Arthur L. Satterwhite III is a recognized voice on Millennials, generational diversity, and intergenerational leadership. Dr. Satterwhite is a sought-after speaker, professor, writer and consultant. He also serves as the Vice President of Multiethnic Ministries with Young Life. To learn more, visit Dr. Satterwhite’s website at www.satterwhiteco.com, or find him on Twitter @asatterwhiteiii.