May 17, 2024

From Storytelling to Skill-Building: How Different Generations Can Learn from Each Other

education and experience
There’s much that we can learn from each other, especially from older generations. [Supplied]

Life, if you think about it, is made largely of things we learn from others – stories, told down from one generation to the next, the skills our parents and guardians train us to succeed as we age.

Generational learning is a major part of the way the world works. Consider the role of nursing, spearheaded by innovators like Florence Nightingale. If we didn’t have teachers, learning from the knowledge of our predecessors to embed this generational learning within students, we’d likely still be stuck in the Stone Age.

Technology can help us to share skills in new ways – for example, how nursing education has evolved from an in-classroom syllabus to one where nurse practitioner programs online have enabled a new generation to learn the skills of nurses past and present.

How can we truly harness the power of learning from our ancestors? Let’s explore why learning across different generations is a great way to scale up your knowledge – and what it can mean when tackling modern work with additional learned experience.

The Wealth of Health and Work

In today’s world, people are living longer than ever. Consider the average life expectancy – a little more than a century ago, average life expectancy was as little as 50 years, according to data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Today, an average Aussie is projected to live nearly thirty years longer – transforming our demographics from a population that dies relatively young, to one that is living much longer than our predecessors.

In 2022, there were more than 4.8 million people in Australia over the age of 65 – surpassing the national population of 3.7 million in Australia in 1900. This generational shift has people live longer, healthier lives – and in some cases, even work longer.

Fifty years ago, older Australians typically retired in their early sixties. After a few decades of decline, the typical retirement age for older Australians has returned to the same stubborn marker from the 1970s. With more workers than ever, and the advent of modern technology, this would seem unfathomable. However, it’s clear – with an aging population, there’s still plenty of work to go around. 

Differing Generations of Lived Experience

While many older Australians spend longer periods in the workforce or exit the workforce entirely and choose to return at a later date, an interesting situation emerges – a nation of intergenerational workforces, where younger bosses employ older workers. This can often be a point of friction and conflict.

The intergenerational conflicts that resonate between generations have been well documented, from memes like ‘ok boomer’ to ongoing controversies online about the values different generations of employers find important. Looking beyond the controversies, however – is there anything that we can learn from our peers from other generations?

As it turns out, there’s much that we can learn from each other. Take, for example, nurses who have spent decades caring for patients. A new nurse might have gone through extensive placements, however, older nurses have spent tens of thousands of hours on the job, and have a wealth of life experience.

A younger nurse may be able to learn some tricks of the trade from older colleagues – perhaps a trick to soothing anxious parents, or someone that they can collaborate with on complex care problems. Intergenerational learning can be a great way to train and maintain soft skills that might not necessarily be able to be mastered in professional teaching environments.

grandparents as storytellers
Communication issues between generations can often lead to conflict or disorder, when the opposite was intended. [Supplied]

What about learning from younger counterparts? Interestingly enough, there’s a lot that older workers can learn from their new colleagues as well, particularly around the use of digital technologies. There are significant disparities when considering digital inclusion – for many older Australians, a lack of experience can make it difficult for an older person to feel connected with family and friends.

Young people can offer a wealth of insight when connecting online – and for older Australians, who may feel a little more vulnerable when opening Facebook or WhatsApp, that sense of reassurance can be supportive. In a world as complex as it is today, it’s nice to know that with a little bit of work, everyone’s grandma can get involved in their great-grandson’s P.E. class.

Generational Divides and Their Impact

What are the consequences of ignoring other generations? As it turns out, intergenerational conflict can cause serious issues in the workforce, if left untreated.

A common issue that can occur is communication issues – where words and sayings can be misinterpreted, spun around the office water cooler, and thrown back in someone’s face, even if well intended. Another is the impact of generational stereotypes – which can further feed into workplace disorder.

Just look at the news – one day, millennials are considered lazy – and the next, boomers are considered change-wary crybabies. Perhaps the answer is more nuanced – with data published by Adobe noting that, in a survey of workers, Gen Z identified different patterns of work that suited their needs, while Baby Boomers tended to stick with rigid historical schedules.

In reality, the world has changed – if there’s anything that the last few years have shown us, it’s that workplaces can be flexible when required and that sometimes we need to put aside our differences and work together productively.

Bridging the generational gap
Australia’s workforce is not getting any younger, and the generations will all need to work together. [Supplied]

When observing the motivations behind older and younger workers, an interesting trend emerges – no matter whether you’re Gen Z or a Baby Boomer, you’re typically joining and leaving roles for fairly similar reasons. Maybe if we all just got along, there’d be less of a generational divide to contend with from the offset.

The Competitive Advantage

If older and younger workers can put aside their differences, it turns out that the unique advantages each generation has can lead to significant productivity gains in the workplace.

Consider the shared experiences that older and younger generations have – putting those skills together can not only enhance the experience for a customer, but it can help us learn something along the way. It’s well documented that diverse teams are more productive teams – they can help to create better products and help to avoid the perils of groupthink.

Ultimately, if we want to be more efficient and effective teams in the workforce, it only makes sense that we should listen to each other more. That starts, by putting the voices of both young and old together, and accepting that only by working together, can we truly make a difference.

Australia’s workforce is not getting any younger, that much is clear. Will the generations of today and yesterday rise to the challenge, and work towards a brighter future together? One can hope.

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