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Intergenerational Peace: making the most everyone’s skills

This month in Alberta Venture

Jun 1, 2013

by Michael Ganley

I love the story of Ed Birnie. Now 80 years old, Birnie was a poster boy for the RCAF in 1953. “Two years ago, he was in high school,” declared the poster. “Now he’s a fully qualified bomber pilot.” He spent 13 years as a B-25 bomber pilot, earned an engineering degree and an MBA, and spent some time as a test pilot. But as Max Fawcett writes in his profile of Birnie, it’s what he’s doing now that really makes him fascinating: For the last several years he’s used his considerable bookkeeping talents to keep a couple of Albertan companies on the financial up-and-up.

Birnie’s not going to let his considerable skills waste away, and a couple of successful companies – and the Albertan economy generally – are the better for it.

In this issue of the magazine, we spend a lot of time talking about great workplaces: What makes them tick? Who likes what? How can you make yours better? Certainly one of the prime talking points is the relationship between the generations. How do boomers, gen-Xers and millennials interact? What about their attitudes makes them different? What should companies do to smooth over the differences?

We have some specific advice and we suggest that there are concrete benefits to a multi-generational workforce: fresh ideas and technological savvy coming from the young; experience and a flexible workforce of seniors to fill out the employment roster. At the same time it seems to me that the most important aspect of a multi-generational workforce are the intangibles, the creative force that comes from the clash of different ways of seeing and thinking, the power of youthful enthusiasm tempered and focused by the wisdom of elders.

Much more could be done in our workplaces to welcome, integrate and benefit from employees of all ages. The generational stereotypes – boomers are selfish wealth-sponges who are leaving behind public debts and environmental destruction; millennials are lazy and self-absorbed; gen-Xers are stunted because of the massive cohort in front of them – are tired. Elders have complained about the young from time immemorial, and the young have often dismissed their elders just as quickly. Most importantly from the standpoint of this magazine, it’s bad for business.

Birnie has certainly suffered from stereotyping. He says his colleagues often view him as “decrepit” until they get to know him. “After a while they kind of say, ‘Well, maybe some things can be learned here,’” he says.

It’s a message that ought to be embraced by all.

Erratum: In our May story on private clubs, “Members Lonely,” we referred to Jennifer Fisk’s company as Keystone Communications. In fact, Fisk founded Freestone Communications. We regret the error.

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