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Generations Divided: How Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers Can Work Together

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As the Baby Boomers who started many of the nation’s nonprofits in the 1960s and 1970s retire, Millennials and Gen Xers are stepping up to the plate and taking the lead. But as different generations learn to work together, some challenges are bound to arise.

However, with a little patience, some communication, and a lot of understanding, intergenerational coworkers can ease the generational divide.

Different generations equal different leadership styles

Each generation has different views about social justice and public impact work which means that, as younger leaders step up, a lack of understanding between generations can pose a significant challenge.

  • Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, were the change-makers of the 1960s and 1970s. They came of age in an idealistic time with plenty of federal funding for social justice and started many of the first nonprofits.
  • Members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, are more skeptical, having grown up in the conservative 1980s and 1990s, where many nonprofits lost federal funding and the government was started being viewed as the problem rather than the solution.
  • Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, saw the impact of 9/11 and the recession, but also came of age during the hopeful years of the 2008 election and the first years of the Obama administration.

Francis Kunreuther, co-founder of the Building Movement Project and author of Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership, explains that this generational divide has particularly impacted nonprofit organizations, especially small ones. Many Boomers have never before experienced a leadership transition since changing leadership is not as institutionalized in the nonprofit sector as it may be in the private sector..Instead, they started the nonprofit, grew with it, and now struggle with turning it over to new leaders.

And because of their vastly different upbringings, Boomers often don’t agree with the way the younger generations want to run things.

“Generation X feels like they are more realistic,” Kunreuther said. “They are very influenced by the entrepreneurial movement. They use more business-like language. But Boomers just think Generation Xers are cynical.”

How do we ease the generational divide

Kunreuther says there are steps both Boomers and younger generations can take to improve relationships and strengthen nonprofits.

For the older generations in leadership positions, they need to look at implicit biases against different races and ages, asking themselves if they are putting people in the position to fail. There is a real need for these leaders to create an atmosphere of progress and evolution within the organization.

They should also know when it is time to leave an organization, she said. That doesn’t mean leaving nonprofits altogether or retiring, but stepping back from the organization you have been with for decades and allowing new leadership to rise. There are plenty of ways to continue advancing your career while also making room for others. Check out “Staying in the Game Past 50,” here on Idealist Careers.

And for the younger generations trying to rise through the ranks, Kunreuther has some specific advice:

  • Ask questions. If you are applying for a leadership position, ask tough questions of the board members about their role in your work. She suggests digging deep and trying to find out if the board members will be comfortable with you advancing your ideas.
  • Find allies. Going straight to somebody who seems to be shutting you down may not work. Start with the person who is most sympathetic, and once they understand your struggle, they may be able to help you communicate with the difficult leader more effectively.
  • Bring in a trainer. Building Movement Project provides trainings to nonprofits to help generations communicate better and new leaders to transition. Many cities have local organizations that provide leadership trainings as well. One place to start is with the local chapter of Young Nonprofit Professionals.
  • Talk to your peers. Support from colleagues in similar situations is essential. Try to find a meeting of young nonprofit folks in your community. There is much you can learn from other people going through the a similar experience.
  • Learn from other organizations. Kunreuther recommends reading case studies, some of which are in her book, to get a better understanding of how many nonprofits struggle with the generational divide.

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About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.

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