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Workplace Mentoring Primer

Cross-Generational Mentoring

Cross-generational mentoring involves pairing a person from one generation with a person from a different one with a goal of mutual learning and growth. In this way it is a two-way exchange between employees from different generations (Wills, Cokley, & Holmes, 2009). Whereas most of the research on formal reverse mentoring programs tends to focus on more junior employees teaching more senior employees about technology, cross-generational mentoring recognizes that both older and younger generations have many things they could teach and learn from each other. Cross-generational mentoring can benefit both individuals by helping them learn about their specific perspectives and experiences thereby increasing their ability to work and communicate effectively with individuals of a different generation. For example, different generations can learn from each other how to effectively develop and market products and services to targeted segments of the population.

Cross-generational mentoring may be especially useful in today's multi-generational workplace in which generational differences pose both challenges and opportunities. While generational differences may cause conflicts or divisions between co-workers, they also present an extraordinary opportunity to promote knowledge sharing and improve interpersonal skills.

In "Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace," Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak (2000) explore the interactions of four primary generational groups, defined as follows:

  • Traditionalists/Veterans - Born between 1922 and 1943 (52 million people), these individuals' earliest memories and subsequent development are associated with World War II.
  • Baby Boomers - Born between 1943 and 1960 (73.2 million people), these individuals were born and raised in an era of extreme optimism, opportunity and progress.
  • Generation Xers - Born between 1960 and 1980. (70.1 million people), these individuals were born after the blush of the Baby Boomers and came of age deep in the shadow of the Boomers.
  • Nexters/Millennial/Generation Yers - Born between 1980 and 2000 (69.7 million people), these individuals are the children of Baby Boomers and early Xers and are influenced by our current high-tech, neo-optimistic time (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000).

Because each generation entered the workforce during a different point in our society's history, each brings a distinct "generational personality" to work. These personalities are made up of the particular generation's core values, the events and experiences they collectively witnessed, and how they were raised (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002). These variables differ between generations and often affect their ability to communicate and work with others from different generations.

Information on generational personality differences can be useful for employees who are matched with a mentor or protégé from a different generation. Understanding the typical traits and preferences of the generation to which the mentor or protégé belongs enables mentoring partners to tailor their communication and interaction style appropriately to the partner. For example, the generation personality of Generation X suggests these individuals may prefer a casual and flexible working arrangement that respects their independence and adaptability while the members of the Millennial Generation prefer a more structured and team-oriented workplace experience (Thielfoldt & Scheef, 2004). As a result, mentors of Gen-Xers may need to approach mentoring with a more flexible style while mentors of Millennials may need to provide more structure to their protégés.

Whatever the generation, tailoring one's approach to one's mentoring partner is important to building a positive relationship that suits each partner and meets their personal goals and expectations. While knowing the generational personality traits of the mentoring partner may not guarantee one partner knows the other's true preferences, it can serve as a starting point for assessing and discussing personal preferences and styles at the onset of the relationship. The authors further distinguish these four generations in terms of their core values and perspectives on work as illustrated in Table 2.

Traditionalists/Veterans Baby Boomers Generation Xers Nexters/Millennials/Gen Y
Birth Years 1922-1943 1943-1960 1960-1980 1980-2000
Core Value
  • Dedication
  • Hard Work
  • Conformity
  • Law and Order
  • Respect for Authority
  • Patience
  • Delayed reward
  • Duty before pleasure
  • Adherence to Rules
  • Honor
  • Optimism
  • Team Orientation
  • Personal Gratification
  • Health and Wellness
  • Personal Growth
  • Youth
  • Work
  • Involvement
  • Diversity
  • Thinking globally
  • Balance
  • Technoliteracy
  • Fun
  • Informality
  • Self-reliance
  • Pragmatism
  • Optimism
  • Civic Duty
  • Confidence
  • Achievement
  • Sociability
  • Morality
  • Street Smarts
  • Diversity
Perceptions of Key Concepts in the Workplace
Career Goals "Build a legacy" "Build a stellar career" "Build a portable career" "Build parallel careers"
On The Job Rewards "Satisfaction of a job well done" "Money,title,recognition, the corner office" "Freedom is the ultimate reward" "Work that has meaning for me"
Work/Life Balance "Support me in shifting the balance" "Help me balance everyone else and find meaning myself" "Give me balance now, not when I'm 65" "Work isn't everything: I need flexibility so I can balance all my activities."
Perception of Retirement" "Reward" "Retool" "Renew" "Recycle"
Changing Jobs "Job changing carries a stigma" "Job changing puts you behind" "Job changing is necessary" "Job changing is part of my daily routine"
Need for Feedback "No News is Good News" "Feedback once a year with lots of documentation" "Sorry to interrupt, but how am I doing?" "Feedback whenever I want it at the push of a button"
Training "I learned it the hard way and so can you" "Train 'em too much and they'll leave" "The more they learn, the more they stay" "Continuous learning is a way of life"

Source: This table, excerpted from Wills, Cokley, & Holmes, 2009, was created based on research from Lancaster & Stillman (2002) and Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak (2000).

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