Closing the Generational Platitude Gap


The great actress Cicely Tyson won a Tony Award this year for her performance in the Broadway revival of the play “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Tyson is 87 years old.

I need you to not retire until I get to work with you, fellow actress Kerry Washington pleads with Tyson in a conversation recorded in the New York Times (9/29/2013).

No retirement. Tyson reassures her.

I don’t think retirement exists in our profession, Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer confirms in a recent interview in Associated Press. If you retire, something has gone very wrong in your career.

Plummer is 83.

I don’t know of a single painter who wants to stop painting, writer who wants to stop writing, actor who no longer wishes to act. Why would you want to stop working when work brings you so much joy? I think of this as I read the current flurry of writing about the supposed challenges of engaging a millennial work-force.

Millennials want work that has meaning, so it goes. They want to be engaged and challenged. Otherwise they just move on.

Yes, millennials crave the sort of engagement that artists roll out of bed for every morning.

Bravo. Hallelujah. Amen.

Let’s Toss Archaic Work Narratives

The “millennials-want-meaning” storyline is a wonderfully subversive narrative. It is also one of the great unwitting crimes of an outmoded HR mindset. It willfully pits one generation of the workforce against another. It is, quite simply, offensive.

In the parlance of generational bucketing, I’m a boomer. My generation is full of entrepreneurs, artisans, social activists, multiple-careerists and plain-old-adventurers who hunger for meaningful work.

We don’t figure in this traditional workplace narrative because most of us didn’t put up with corporate constraints.

We chose to create our own meaning.

We opted out.

Instead of focusing on generational differences, let us champion more essential conversations about how we foster and enhance meaningful engagement at work.

This is the narrative we were running from:

Work transpires in a 40-hour work week. We work overtime though we really hate to do so. Work/life balance is our answer to a job environment that demands too much of our time and isn’t all that satisfying, to boot. Our life goal is to get to retirement as quickly as possible so “we can really enjoy life.” Here’s where we finally get to do all of the things on our bucket list. And since work has been a life of dreams deferred, this is a pretty darn long list …

Is it just me, or does this sound like a terribly joyless storyline? Thank you, millennial friends, for running from this narrative, as well.

And let us be clear: This is a corporate and government-work narrative. It is not a generational one.

Let’s Have Fresh Workplace Conversations

Instead of focusing on generational differences, let us champion more essential conversations about how we foster and enhance meaningful engagement at work.

Celebrate Flexibility

I value process. I don’t value rigid process. An over-processorized workplace does not motivate or inspire anyone. It squelches the human drive to do better. It doesn’t foster creative thought. Flexibility does. Flexibility about every aspect of work – including when the heck we may end up retiring.

Celebrate Autonomy

Employee surveys consistently show that folks like a measure of autonomy about how they conduct work. You want engagement? Don’t kill it with endless top-down micro-management. Hire people who are eager to perform their jobs. Set them up to be successful. Trust that they know how to solve a problem or two. And let them do it!

Celebrate Joy

Claim joy as an essential cornerstone of an exceptional workplace. Joy in performing a task. Joy in engaging with colleagues. Make it an explicit value. Foster real conversations at every organizational level about how you can invoke more joy at work. Create structures that support joy and do not kill it (Hint: LEAN does not equal JOY).

Foster real conversations at every organizational level about how you can invoke more joy at work.

Last month, while working with the Executive Team of a $700 million global manufacturing firm, I asked the highly competent members of this team to share their visions with me. Feedback had revealed that the messages coming from this team were not well-received 2 or 3 levels down in the organization. The vision-answers that came forth were cloaked in traditional corporate-strategy-speak. Efficient. Cool. Joyless.

You know what, Mauricio, the CEO of the company finally said, I really want us to be a company where people are happy to come to work.

Yay, I thought to myself. Mauricio gets it.

My 88-year-old Mom gets it, too. During a little mini-vacation in Basel/Switzerland at the start of fall, we sat at a Starbucks, sipping our cappuccinos, and we talked about all that we enjoy in life.

You’re so lucky, Mom said to me with a sigh of appreciation. You have your own business. You don’t have to retire at 65. 

Now that’s a conversation worth having.

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Image credit: tribalium123 / 123RF Stock Photo

Achim Nowak is the author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within (Allworth/2013) and Power Speaking. An international authority on leadership presence, Achim coaches entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. He has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, NPR, and on 60 Minutes. Achim is based in Miami.

  • TedCoine

    Achim, what a gripping truth! Every person of EVERY age craves meaning from their work. A few companies get it; many more still don’t.

    Work isn’t something to be endured, or enjoyed only by the few “lucky” in the creative class. Work rocks – and if your employees don’t think so, you’ve got a problem: one there is no guarantee you’ll survive.

    I love your Extraordinary mind, my friend! So proud to have you in the League!

    • Achim Nowak

      Marge … I salute the universal 75-year-old you, and I celebrate unique Marge. Age silos annoy the heck out of me. And they have become such an accepted part of HR jargon. I would much rather dance with you and be amazed …

  • Achim Nowak

    I am thrilled to be a “Leaguer!

    And I get riled up when we get side-tracked by the not-so-helpful conversations about work. The generational conversation, I believe, is one of those. Here’s to higher frames. Higher ground.

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  • Alli Polin

    Wonderful post, Achim. I think that the one sentence that literally stopped me in my tracks and made my heart beat faster was: “Why would you want to stop working when work brings you so much joy?” OMG. I want that. Who wouldn’t.

  • Suzanne Daigle

    This post NAILS it for me…! Everything, every word, every story and everything contained in it. We are on the same singular, laser path – a path of meaning and joy — a celebration of work and life, purpose, love and passion in an ageless way.

    And the line that is seared in my soul, which brought tears to my eyes, is
    “You’re so lucky, Mom said to me with a sigh of appreciation. You have your own business. You don’t have to retire at 65.”

    I agree with Ali and with Ted and love seeing how ignited we all are by what you wrote. Please shout it on every tree top Achim, push the message on every social media and keep repeating it over and over again. It is worth listening to.

  • marge schiller

    Generational stereotyping is one kind of politically incorrect labeling that gets very little push back. Make those kinds of assumptions about gender or race and stand back for attack.

    Thanks Achim for pushing back on outmoded ageism.

    I am 75 and that means I’m like all 75 year olds, some 75 year olds and also unique- I’m me, Marge.

    Tear down the age silos and lets dance together in amazing conversations that leave all of us saying: “well gee, I never thought of it that way.”

    Marge Schiller, PhD

  • johanngauthierakamrrenaissance

    Dear Achim,

    Your post in my humble opinion celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and elevates the discourse on workplace excellence and innovation to unprecedented grounds.

    We live in a truly connected economy offering endless possibilities ~ with the promise of energetic #infectious tribes and communities such as #HumanBiz embracing our individual and collective humanity.

    With the world now being a very small oyster and the globe virtually at our finger-tips comes a very high responsibility ~ to respect individuals for their greatness and gifts and let go of old industrial models and mindsets that boxes people and energy.

    Here in our #infectious conversations we choose to embrace people for who they are in all of their splendour ~ artists crafting a new world.

    Co-creating gems and diamonds ~ a collection of people’s essence and daily care and investment to elevate the human spirit ~ to foster #unstoppable excellence and innovation in workplaces and in our lives.

    I thank you Achim for your inspiration and call to action ~ to celebrate joy and energetic leaders.

    Your friend,

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  • Achim Nowak

    Thanks, Alli. Here’s to both of us staying in the joy-knowing and joy-making business!!!

  • Achim Nowak

    Thanks, Suzanne. I know there are many artist-entrepreneur-adventurer-work/lovers like us who don’t dream of retiring. Isn’t it odd that entire cultures have bought into the notion that we must retire, that there is a certain age that is best … And institutionalized retirement is just another human intervention …

  • Suzanne Daigle

    It’s why the ARTS have so much to teach us! It’s what the Creative New Jersey ignited across the State in Open Space under the theme: Creativity and Innovation to Revitalize the Economy.

  • Achim Nowak

    The Creative New Jersey Open Space theme is spot on. It is no accident that many retirees suddenly turn to artistic pursuits. Instead of compartmentalizing the artistic spark, let us integrate as a sacred life force into work and play, from an early age on. It will change the work-engagement-conversation.

  • Achim Nowak

    I long for organizations that explicitly foster joy and meaningful engagement. I also believe that every one of us – should that be what we desire – is responsible for creating such worlds. And if we cannot do so in our current place of employment, it behooves us to find the places where we can.
    In the end – as you so passionately state – human interactions, at their best, are but a glorious exchange of energy. That’s why forms that allow for this exchange – Open Space conversations, all creative disciplines, every aspect of true improvisation and boundless brainstorming – are so wondrous and so essential. In the thick of our over-processorized work-places, these are some of the forms that truly do elevate the human spirit.

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