Are Museums Good at the Cross-Generation Thing?

workplace wordle

In a field where new graduate programs open yearly, where internships–too few of them offering a living wage– abound, you would think MuseumLand would be good at the cross generational thing. After all, how many of you work in departments where baby boomers and Gen-Xers lead cross-generational teams? Much has been written about this topic in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. Writers–Anne and I are among them– have defined generational characteristics to help us all understand one another. Some of it may have even done some good. But here’s what I want to talk about today: How we, and by ‘we’ I mean all of us born before 1980, treat staff who are younger than we are.

I am inspired by many of the young women we’ve met in the course of completing our Women+Museums manuscript. They are smart, engaged, and engaging, and yet too frequently they seem to run into the buzz-saw of fogeyism and ‘mansplaining’ that’s the verbal equivalent of being doused with ice water. Since I am a baby boomer, can I suggest we stop doing it?

In the survey and focus groups we did for Women+Museums we heard stories from a number of young women about life as the youngest employee. In many ways it echoes those feelings of returning home to a family gathering. Regardless of what has happened to you, whether you summited Mount McKinley, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign or spent three years in the Peace Corps, you’re still the youngest person at the table. And we have all been that person.

How many of you have watched while a colleague re-states what a young staff member has just said? Perhaps their motivations were good–they thought the explanation offered was poorly phrased and wanted colleagues to understand–or perhaps they’re just swiping an idea and re-phrasing, a boomer variation of traditional ‘mansplaining’. One of our survey respondents called it the “Ma Hen” syndrome, suggesting that “alpha females often destroy the confidence of women around them,” while another remarked on the phrase “Because we’ve always done it that way,” as the response to any new idea. One of our interviewees recalled being at a professional meeting when a man remarked, “Who’s this smart young girl?” while another remembers being frozen in place when an older, male visitor asked her director if she was “legal”. Admittedly, every issue has its horror stories, but this one shouldn’t be hard to correct.

If you’re a museum leader, we hope you’re hiring the very best of the youngest generation. We assume that, like all hires, you see something–a spark, talent, a hunger–that you know will benefit your organization. We hope that’s something you convey to current staff when new hires are announced. And we hope that in your organization interns and freshly-minted graduates are respected for more than their facility with IT and social media, something that’s become a sort of personnel trope for the millennial generation. And frankly, if that’s the only compliment you can offer about someone born after 1980, you need to get to know them better.

Everyone covets respect, especially at work. In the last several weeks two young women I know have been mansplained in a way that made one feel as if she were mentally challenged, while the other was verbally patted on the head as if she were a tiny dog. The tone of both conversations was a kind of mental sigh that said, well, you’ll get it when that frontal lobe development finally happens. Both are kick-ass people with a lot to bring to the table. Not that they don’t have stuff to learn. Not that they don’t need mentors. They do. We all do. But isn’t it easy to be a mentor and a mentee if there is mutual respect on both sides?
So here’s to intergenerational harmony at work. We all have a lot to teach and learn so let’s leave our snarkiness in the car.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. And thank you to all of you who helped break a record this week–over 2,000 views!

One Comment on “Are Museums Good at the Cross-Generation Thing?”

  1. David Grabitske says:

    Ever since Strauss & Howe published their book, “Generations: a history of America’s future,” 25 years ago, the field seems to have embraced the notion of cohort behaviors – and, in coaching many nonprofits I have found knowing the generational differences to be essential for approaching discussions with their leaders. Strauss & Howe also rightly point out that there are life arc issues that should not be confused with generational behavior.

    The example of being the youngest in the room also happened to me, a Gen Xer (or, I’d prefer, “Bicentennial Generation” as I grew up during the planning and celebration thereof). I remember an early professional meeting and being about 23 with the next youngest person being in their late 60s or early 70s. An elderly woman in her 80s patted me on the head (literally, not verbally) and remarked that there was hope for history museums because I was there. This seems to be a surprise for every generation that becomes elderly – that younger people like history, too. That’s a life arc issue we all face as noted, but the generational preferences often can kick in and shape our action and response. My generation too often seems to respond recklessly with plenty of cavalier sarcasm, but that’s not an excuse for how I reacted (somewhat discreetly) in the car after that meeting. She likely meant well, but as a G.I. (S & H birth years 1901-1924, aka “Greatest”) she saw me as someone who would sustain what her generation sacrificed to build and acted according to what she likely learned as a young adult/parent.

    Generational behavior then is more about awareness in understanding situations so that positive action has a chance to succeed. Generational preferences need to be considered along with the person’s life arc. Pardon my earlier sarcasm about being surprised; also know that I believe my generation has many admirable qualities, too; and, I pledge to not be surprised who likes history when my turn comes. History never stops, and I am glad for that and equally glad to be a Bicentennial.

    Right now there are 6-7 generations alive, and about 4 in the workforce: Silent (birth years 1925-1942), Boomers (1943-1960), Bicentennials (1961-1981), and Millennials (1982-2004). The oldest “Nexters” (aka 9-11s) are 11 this year, and will begin entering the workforce in about 5 years with parts of their generation likely not even born yet.

    Good, thought-provoking post.

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