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Why Attaining Sustainability Requires Us to Bridge Generational Divide

05/20/2015 12:10 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Managing change while confronting the onslaught of converging social, economic, and environmental issues that challenge humanity requires all generations to work together. Although we inherently know that collaboration is a powerful tool for achieving mutual results, humanity is frequently encumbered and divided by generational differences which stifle productive communications and relationship building.

Too often I'm confronted by people of all ages that say they don't understand the "older" or "younger" generation. Whether they are old or young, the sentiment is often the same. Typically, frustration and plethora of excuses are expressed on how and why the "other generation" simply "doesn't get it".

Boomers call Millennials too proactive, unfocused, entitled, and non-respectful. Millennials are frustrated by bureaucratic and lengthy process and would rather see immediate results. They claim Boomers are slow to act and require too much handholding when it comes to new technology, the speed of information, and the formulation of ideas into action. Boomers claim Millennials fall shy of understanding process and the need to formulate sound strategies which can be deliberately put into place to hedge risk.

There is no doubt that there are stark generational differences in how Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials think, act, and live. We have grown up in dramatically different times. The advancement of personal computers and communications technologies since the early 1980s has been significant. Many of us "old fogies" remember rotary dialed phones, mainframe computers, and floppy disks. Throughout their lives, Boomers have seen both incremental and dramatic shifts in technological innovation.

In contrast, Millennials were born into a world where the speed of information and the generation, management, and analysis of large amounts of data was just taking off. When it comes to technology and computing in particular, Boomers began with training wheels and had a steady learning curve associated with the implications of how data and information could be processed and used. Millennials on the other hand have been handed the wheels of a Ferrari, without any driver's education, and are somehow expected to stay within the fictional "lines" of due process so valued by Boomers and older generations. Boomers have been able to "stage-gate" their relationship and experience with technology, whereas Millennials more intuitively adopt.

Our shared reality is that all generations are part of a new playing field that looks a little like the game of the past, but is rapidly reinventing the game going forward. The rules of engagement and players have done a 180 degree turn in one generation. Without pause for reflection or time to assess the damages and opportunities, this situation pits old against young, rich against poor, Democrat against Republican, and so on.

As each successive generation moves forward, it is important to ask if we continue to have the "freedom to operate." In a free and democratic nation we have virtues, values, and beliefs that we are open to share, vet, and pursue. When we constrain ourselves, whether it be in our philosophical framework and thinking (i.e., our mindset) or in our ability to live a healthy lifestyle (i.e., limiting our mental or physical abilities and consciousness) we basically limit our ability to help not only ourselves, but others.

If our own most basic needs are net being taken care of, how can we possibly address the needs of those in our community, our state, nation, let alone around the world? This simple point is far too often lost by too many people. In an eagerness to serve the needs of people a world away, far too many people forget about the challenges right before our eyes, in our neighborhood and under our own roof.

It is not enough to say "I don't get the other generation." We have to lead, move beyond impasses in philosophical and ideological thinking, and work hard to understand the needs, capabilities, and values of others so that we can not only understand them, but work together with them. That is how generational change happens, that is how leaders lead. When Boomers or Millennial's ask me what they should do I frequently say, "befriend someone from the other generation, get to know them, learn about them, discover what drives them, and embrace who they are and the values they bring." If we throw up our arms and announce defeat before we ever really get the chance to collaborate, well then, that is just another way we limit our freedom to operate.

When I speak to audiences I often challenge them, hopefully balanced with a little sense of humor and a dose of reality, to consider what our actions and behaviors as adults demonstrate to children. For some reason the values and virtues that our parents and grandparents preached to us as kids don't always stick into adulthood. There is tremendous merit and truth to what our elders once taught and told us. And for a period of life we somewhat heeded to their wisdom. Do you remember advice and phrases such as "be kind to others, treat others respectfully, listen to your peers and elders, share, take turns, and play nice?" I do. These words were often delivered in the moment, and used as a direct way for the older generation to guide us, swiftly, into modifying our behavior while learning a "societal" virtue on how we are expected to behave. Yet when we arrive at adulthood, whether we are 20-something or 50-something, we don't always live up to the wise advice and expectation of those that came before us.

Eager and innocent, the world's youth intently watch and model adult behavior as they yearn to have more responsibility and "be older." Adults however, are conflicted. Our actions and behaviors depict a confusing contrast of hope and fear. On one hand adults preach individual integrity and character, generational peace and sustainability - yet when we are at our worst - we perpetuate war, violence, economic inequality, racial biases, unethical conduct, and so on. Adults inflict unwanted and unnecessary havoc throughout the world. Children are mostly innocent bystanders and victims of our vile social ills.

Recently, I referenced the stark contrasts and illogical behaviors of adults as an illustration of generational divide impeding sustainable development to a group of college students and professors. Following the presentation, one of the professors in the room stated very matter of fact, "...yes, its accurate that adults are not 100% accountable for the unsustainable behaviors and mistrust they perpetuate in society...but you can't change that, humans fight for survival and for what they believe in...conflicts and differences will always be prevalent in society...it is how changes in the past have occurred...and it is how changes will happen into the future."

When the professor concluded their comment I looked around the room. All eyes were on me, awaiting a reaction. I looked at several students and felt immediately sad for them. The flawed logic of this particular professor is exactly what the students have come to hear, time and time again, their whole lives. Too me the professor's ideology screamed of accepting the world for what it is, not what it could be. The comment accepts the status-quo and suggests that humans are inherently unable to collaborate to achieve mutual ends.

The status-quo has an incredible way of drawing you in, making you feel safe and comforted. People hide behind the status-quo, and they like to extinguish challenging ideas quickly. To do so, they recite history and put the fear in others. For people living in a democratic and free country with an exuberant amount of wealth compared to developing nations, it is a convenient podium to speak from, the status-quo. Everything makes sense when you reason it with a sprinkle of economic theory laced with baked-in ideological views of humanity that were developed 30 or more years ago, during a time when students were not even born yet.

Why shouldn't humanity aspire for greatness grounded in a new generational demand for peace, sustainability, justice, ethics, and accountability? To throw up our hands, and before a group of peers and students, and basically say challenging convention will never work goes against the hard fought freedom that has been bestowed upon every citizen that attend my talk in the lecture hall. I did not challenge the professor, but I did simply say, the most challenging thing is to set ourselves aside, even for just a moment, to view our communities and the world through another set of eyes, to understand the point of view of another human, who may share space on this earth with us, but who may have a dramatically different view that us on how we play together.

The world's greatest asset is the life, intellect, creativity, and inspiration enveloped in every single individual alive today. And, life is rapidly evolving before our eyes. To stay too entrenched with the past prohibits us to live in the moment, let alone figure out ways to move forward. We shouldn't throw away our values, beliefs and ideologies. But we need to be cognizant that there is always a younger generation seeking wisdom, truth, and opportunity - right at our heels - and who represent the promise of a better future.

We will differ on the definition of, and approach to, attain a sustainable future. However, together we all represent the sustainability generation, an extraordinary diversity of people, ideas, capability, and creativity. By harnessing our collective ambition with the will to act, and the power of personal accountability, the sustainability generation can overcome any challenge threatening the fate of humanity.

The opportunity to achieve a more sustainable world begins with each one of us, selflessly embracing and living life with a strong sense of purpose, passion, and resolve. We have, individually and generationally, the power to influence the world around us. To get there, we need to foster mutual respect, understanding, trust building, and collaboration. Together we can bridge generational divides and allow humanity to achieve its greatest potential. In doing so, we can stimulate sustainability and liberate humanity from the most significant barrier to our collective success, ourselves.