Phyllis Korkki, an assignment editor at The New York Times, visited the garment district in Manhattan to interview designers as part of a story for the newspaper’s Snapchat account. Credit George Etheredge/The New York Times
How on earth did I become an “older worker?”
It was only a few years ago, it seems, that I set out to climb the ladder in my chosen field. That field happens to be journalism, but it shares many attributes with countless other workplaces. For instance, back when I was one of the youngest people in the room, I was helped by experienced elders who taught me the ropes.
Now, shockingly, I’m one of the elders. And I’ve watched my industry undergo significant change. That’s why I recently went searching for a young mentor — yes, a younger colleague to mentor me.
Wait, isn’t that backward?
Not at all. Some companies — including Cisco Systems, Target and UnitedHealth Group — are embracing reverse mentorships, particularly as technological change sweeps through offices and lives. Millennials, after all, grew up with computers, and they are “natural consultants,” said Debra Arbit, chief executive of BridgeWorks, which helps companies deal with generational differences. America’s younger workers have already been “personal technology consultants in their own families, so it’s a role they’re very comfortable playing,” she said.
I sought a mentor to help me develop a specific new skill — and something entirely outside my comfort zone — namely, how to use Snapchat, the smartphone-based photo and video service that is popular among teenagers and young adults. Not coincidentally, Snapchat is also being used as a newsroom tool at The New York Times to reach new readers.
I didn’t need to look far to find my mentor: Last year The Times’s resident Snapchat expert, Talya Minsberg, 27, moved into a cubicle just a few rows from mine. Her job title alone — social strategy editor — is a clear sign of our changing world.
“My job didn’t exist five years ago,” Talya pointed out. That’s another eye opener. The job I hold, assignment editor at The Times, has existed for generations.
My experience with Talya taught me far more than the basics of a new form of video storytelling (which was already asking a lot). Along the way I learned important lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of the middle-aged brain, and how learning new things can keep it in top working order. It also made me realize that organizations and individual workers could do a lot more to bridge the gaps between generations. Each age group has untapped resources that can benefit others at a different stage of life.
In the beginning, I felt a little awkward about reaching out to Talya at all. A part of me felt that at my age (mid-50s) it was somehow unseemly for me to ask for help, particularly from one so young.
Ms. Arbit suggested a possible reason for my awkwardness: Baby boomers tend to have to a hierarchical view of the workplace — an “org chart” mind-set that imagines power filtering down from the top. Millennials, by contrast, may see the office as more of a horizontal network, she said.
At the same time, as a younger person conversant in the trendiest technology, Talya seemed imbued with a kind of glamour. I felt as if face-to-face communication was too old-fashioned a way to set up meetings with her. Even though she sat just a few desks away, it didn’t seem right to come up to her and say, “Could you meet at noon on Wednesday?” the way I might easily do with an older colleague.
Email seemed old-fashioned, too. So instead we set up our meetings using her preferred method: Google Calendar. To me, the practice of deciding unilaterally on an open time felt presumptuous, and to reject someone else’s suggestion seemed rude. But that’s not how Talya viewed it — to her, it was the most convenient way of arriving at a suitable time because the participants can view each other’s calendars.
In one of our early Google Calendar-arranged meetings, I informed Talya why I was asking her to teach me Snapchat: “I want to be on fleek!”
Very slowly, Talya taught me Snapchat fundamentals. It was not easy, partly because the software is not intuitive. In fact, as Talya put it, it can be “really weird and hard to understand.”
But part of the problem was me — a person in her mid-50s trying to learn something new. Earl Miller, a neuroscience professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained why progress might be slow.
As you age, your dendrites — the antennas by which neurons receive information from other neurons — begin to shrink, he said. This is especially noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, which handles higher-order brain functions like focusing, staying on task and forming long-term memories.
The decline in these areas begins in your 40s and 50s and worsens from there, he said. This can make it tougher to focus. There’s also more of a limit to how many thoughts people can carry in their heads simultaneously.
“Your mind’s bandwidth is smaller,” he said. “You learn at a slower rate because less information is getting in.”
All of these abilities tend to be at their peak when people are in their 20s — Talya’s age. Before the age of 30, people’s brains possess more plasticity, meaning they can learn more easily.
Ms. Korkki previewed a Snapchat video, one of three she produced for The Times’s account. Credit George Etheredge/The New York Times
That sounds depressing. Isn’t there any mental upside to getting older?
Yes, there is, Professor Miller said. Older people tend to be more disciplined and diligent, he said, which can compensate for learning deficits. Based on their greater experience in the world, they are also very good at putting ideas and thoughts into categories — the very basis of knowledge and wisdom.
It’s true: “The older brain is a wiser brain,” he said. But it can also get into a rut because of its lack of plasticity.
Read the full New York Times article here.
(C) Phyllis Korkki, The New York Times, 2016
Coming from the point-of-view of the younger generation, I absolutely agree that you can learn from someone younger in the workplace. Not only has technology has taken over, a revolution we have grown up with therefore adapt to as second nature, but millennials are bringing fresh perspectives to the table.
When someone straight out of college comes into their first job, there are very little expectations because they don't have many real life experiences to base off of. This allows for no preconceptions and fresh slate for learning, molding and endless creative ideas.
I believe it is important to treat your subordinates as your coequals. Involve them in more. Learn from each others mistakes. You can always create a mentorship, no matter the age difference or generation gap.
(C) Taylor Post, 2016