What “The Intern” Can Teach Us About the Multigenerational Workplace


After his wife of 40 years passes away, 70-year-old retiree, Ben Whittaker finds himself with too much time on his hands. So, when he sees an ad seeking “senior” interns, he decides to apply. With years of managerial experience, Whittaker aces his interviews and lands an internship working for the founder of the online fashion start-up, Jules Ostin.

That’s the premise of the hit 2015 film “The Intern,” starring Robert De Niro. Though it’s a light-hearted comedy, “The Intern” is surprisingly relevant, since, for the first time in history, the labor force now includes members of five generations.

As the film illustrates, a diverse workforce can present some challenges. Initially, Ostin wants nothing to do with her “senior” intern. Yet as time goes on, both intern and manager discover how much they can learn from each other. The moral of the story? When mutual respect and open-mindedness are guiding principles, everyone and every business benefits.

What older generations can teach younger generations in the workplace:

1. Wisdom

Much has been written about the value of mentoring in the workplace. When older employees share their experiences, younger coworkers gain valuable insights to help them in their careers. In “The Intern,” Ben Whittaker becomes the go-to guy for advice from fellow interns as well as high-level employees on everything from professionalism, efficiency, dress code, employee relations and marketing.

“Older employees have been there, done that. Their years in the workplace have given them an understanding of what is expected and how their work affects others,” notes Michael Lewis of Money Crashers. “Older workers [can be] more confident in their expertise and subsequently bring stability to the workplace, often acting as role models and mentors to younger employees.”

2. Self-awareness

Years of experience have given more tenured employees knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, something business leaders such as Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber says is the most important quality needed for professional success.

“Regardless of your profession or industry, your career success rides on your ability to lead, manage and get along with your colleagues,” says Guber. “Executing this requires exceptional interpersonal skills, the foundation of which is very personal — YOU! Self-awareness is the essential building block to develop this critical competency.”

3. Levelheadedness

In the movie, Jules Ostin turns to her “senior” intern when she faces crises and major decisions in both her personal and professional lives. Calm, cool and collected, Whittaker provides her with the advice and support she needs to face the significant challenges before her.

Older employees have been through both personal and professional crises. These employees are prepared to handle hard times and have seen reorganizations, recessions and trends in the marketplace come and go and generally take a long view when it comes to handling professional changes and challenges.

4. Institutional knowledge

In previous generations, it was common for employees to remain with their companies for decades. In some cases, people spent their entire careers working for the same company. Long-time employees possess invaluable knowledge of their company’s history, traditions and procedures. When they do retire, it is essential that organizations find ways of transferring their knowledge to their younger workers. Forward-thinking companies are formalizing programs such as phased retirement and the creation of shared knowledge bases, so that when tenured employees retire, they don’t take all their knowledge with them.

5. Diplomacy

Good politics are important, and not just in election years. Though young employees may have the know-how to get the job done, they may not be as skilled as their elders when it comes to understanding interpersonal dynamics and getting buy-in from colleagues and employers.

“Knowing when and how to communicate evolves through years of experience,” writes business consultant and author, Stephen Bastien. “Older workers understand workplace politics and know how to diplomatically convey their ideas to the boss.”

But the multigenerational workforce isn’t a one-way street. There’s much we can learn from those who’ve recently entered the workforce.

What younger generations can teach older generations in the workplace:

1. Technological prowess

Generally speaking, the younger the employee, the more digitally savvy he or she may be. This is an area where younger people can mentor their elders. For example, when Ben Whittaker first sits down at his computer, he is unsure how to start it. Without embarrassing him, the young colleague sitting next to him shows him that all it takes is a single keystroke. Once Ben learns how, he gets right to work.

By now, many older workers use Facebook, yet most are not as savvy about social networking tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Younger employees can teach older colleagues how these tools can benefit them in their careers by connecting them with other professionals and providing opportunities to showcase the breadth of their experience.

2. Fresh ideas

Younger employees may approach projects in refreshing and innovative ways that colleagues more entrenched in the business may not have considered. Their technological expertise may also help businesses to function more efficiently.

“Millennials have always lived in the modern world and are less likely to be constrained by ineffective traditions and false assumptions around what work should be,” points out Steven Hunt for ERE Media. “They’re focused on what work could be. Older employees can learn a lot from younger colleagues about what’s possible for work in the future.”

3. Expansive thinking

Multiple studies, including PWC’s Millennials at Work survey, have shown that younger workers have different expectations for work and their careers. Whereas older generations valued stability and loyalty to their companies, younger workers may expect more from their employers and may be more likely to take risks and make career moves that are in their best interests. They may serve as role models to older colleagues who may be holding back from pursuing rewarding opportunities.

4. Work-life harmony

One difference between Millennials and older generations is the priority the younger employees place on work-life balance. In fact, “surveys suggest these young adults are really not into the ladder-climbing rules and schedules of their parents' careers,” writes Jeanne Sahadi at CNN Money. Older adults can benefit tremendously from workplace modifications such as flexible schedules, wellness programs, telecommuting and job-sharing.

5. Fulfilling dreams

Millennials place a high value on working for companies that strive to improve their communities. They’re interested, not only in making positive contributions at work, but are also motivated to make a difference in their societies.

This is affirmed in the Case Foundation in its 2014 Millennial Impact Report which declares that “Cause work plays an important role in the overall job search and hiring process with Millennials as a motivating factor for seeking and accepting a job, which then translates into a shift in the company’s culture as a whole.”

Today, the number of multigenerational workplaces will continue to expand as people live longer, employees delay retirement and the skills sets of entry level employees continue to evolve. If we’re to take anything away from “The Intern” — in a career sense, anyway — it’s this: We’re never too old to learn, we’re never too young to teach — and vice versa.