Changemaking Leadership: Building Bridges Across Generations

By Deke Copenhaver
generation

There are labels placed on every generation and stereotyping each one is commonplace. I’m a part of Generation X and remember well our generation being labeled as lazy, cynical, and disaffected. Oxford languages defines slacker, a term widely used to describe my generation, as “a young person (especially in the 1990s) of a subculture characterized by apathy and aimlessness.” Having entered midlife I can state unequivocally that many of my friends and peers have become some of the most successful people I know in a number of different fields. They’ve led major corporations, small business start-ups, nonprofits, and social movements which have had a positive, lasting impact on the world we live in. “Slacker” would not be a term to describe any of these individuals to say the least.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between generations. A fundamental lack of trust from one generation to the next is nothing new. I often hear members of my generation opine on the fear that millennials are going to take their jobs. This is often accompanied by a healthy disdain for what they perceive to be this generation’s lack of a strong work ethic and commitment to their jobs. Jack Weinberg, a noted civil rights activist and architect of the Free Speech Movement founded at the University of California, Berkley in 1964, famously coined the phrase “Never trust anyone over 30.” The renowned Greek philosopher Socrates had his own views on the younger generation of his era stating: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” A statement from a very wise man made over 2000 years ago would seem to echo the sentiment of many in my generation’s views on millennials. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 so eloquently puts it “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Age bias is another factor that can impede productive cross-generational engagement. When I decided to run for mayor here in Augusta at the age of 37, I experienced this firsthand. After making my decision I was blissfully unaware that the norm with running for office was to ask for the blessing of the powers that be. Early on I was invited to a meeting by business leaders I knew and respected. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was too young to run and that I hadn’t paid my dues. At that point, I had the life experience of being a part of running a successful small business and a start-up nonprofit while serving in leadership positions on multiple boards. I felt I had all the leadership experience I needed. Ultimately, I ran despite the advice of my elders. Our campaign team was mainly comprised of a group of twenty and thirty-something-year-olds with no political experience. However, the positive energy and enthusiasm of our team helped propel me to victory in a campaign which flew in the face of conventional political wisdom.

In all honesty, I harbor no fears toward the generations following our own but rather am inspired and encouraged by them.  In Augusta, I’ve watched my millennial friends leave our city to start successful careers in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta to name just a few. However, this same generation of up-and-coming leaders have since returned to their hometown to start up many thriving businesses in multiple fields including real estate development, staffing, finance, technology, advertising, and marketing. A generation I hopefully helped to inspire by successfully running for mayor at an early age have now become business leaders, thought leaders, parents, and philanthropists. Each day they’re having a positive impact on the city they have chosen to call home. They now motivate me to continue with my own entrepreneurial endeavors and helped inspire me to publish my first book several years ago. To be a friend and mentor to this generation is something I value and hold dear.

Every generation has something to teach us and something to contribute.  My wife Malisa and I recently hired a marketing intern to help with our entrepreneurial initiatives, of which we have many. Our new hire Molly is a rising senior at the University of Georgia with a double major in marketing and neuroscience with an emphasis on psychology. She recently sat in on the taping of a podcast I’m developing. Following the taping, she gave me some insightful and spot-on feedback. Based on her input, I decided to reinterview my guest. Why would a 53-year-old man who hosted a successful call-in radio show for a year take the advice of a 21-year-old young lady who hasn’t yet graduated from college? Because as an avid listener of podcasts, which I am not at this point, she was right, and the show will be better because of the fresh perspective she provides.

My recent experience with Molly reminded me of the real key to building mutually beneficial, cross-generational relationships: a willingness to set aside preconceived notions of any given generation combined with a focus on listening to each generation’s unique point of view. I believe Scottish whiskey distiller Thomas Dewar eloquently defined the mindset which can best lead to building healthy relationships across generations while bridging divides when he stated, “Minds are like parachutes; they work best when they’re open.”