The Intern: Age Differences At Work, The Hollywood Way

The release of 'The Intern' is an opportunity to say a few things about the real world and the issues that sometimes arise when the workplace is home to different age groups, especially in places where people who are senior in age are junior in authority.
09/29/2015 09:37 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

"Experience never gets old."

That's the tagline of The Intern, the brand new Warner Brothers release that stars Robert De Niro in the title role and Anne Hathaway as the very much younger founder of a fashion start-up that takes him on as a "senior intern."

It's billed as a comedy.

That's probably all you need to know to get a reasonably accurate picture of what might be in store when you head to the theater. You can be sure that De Niro won't develop a pathological obsession with his new boss and attempt her assassination, nor will he rise from humble immigrant roots to the heights of organized crime in order to make people offers they can't refuse.

Instead, it will turn out after the job search, despite many amusingly awkward moments, that the senior intern has a lot to offer and that he'll bond with the young whippersnappers, boss included. In the end, our hearts will be warmed even if the heroine's company crashes and burns.

Few moviegoers will be disappointed that The Intern didn't turn out to be a hard-hitting look at age discrimination or a case study in bitter inter-generational conflict. That wouldn't be the Hollywood we know and love.

Its release is an opportunity, however, to say a few things about the real world and the issues that sometimes arise when the workplace is home to different age groups, especially in places where people who are senior in age are junior in authority, a situation that's especially common in the tech sector.

The fact that people of all ages find themselves working together means that there's no shortage of advice about managing different generations, and the easiest way to handle the subject is by generalizing. Boomers are like this. Millennials are like that. Easy generalization, however, misses the real story, a story that doesn't leave room for experts who are ready to help you connect with Generation X or motivate Generation Y.

The real story is simple, too simple to need specialist interpretation. Regardless of age, people are surprisingly similar. Generational distinctions tend to be relatively superficial. Focusing on individuals is more productive than focusing on traits that people of a certain age supposedly share en masse. In the end, it's not a good idea to assume that people of the same generation share the same attitudes, preferences, work styles and goals.

In other words, the key to working with others, whether they're younger or older, is to approach them without assuming that their ages tell you what they're like.

In the NFL, the St. Louis Rams recently announced that the team had hired someone who specializes in Millennial psychology and motivation. His great insight was the suggestion that coaches tell players the reasons for a part of practice or a particular technique, rather than just telling them to do it without question. Wonder of wonders, players were more receptive to coaching when the point of that coaching was made clear.

To think this is much of a breakthrough, you'd have to believe that non-Millennials are, to a man, blindly obedient. Theirs is not to wonder why.

Is there anyone who believes that knowing the rationale for something you're told to do is a specifically Millennial trait and not one that's simply and fundamentally human? Wanting to know why has nothing to do with age.

That being said, the older employee with a younger boss does have to bear a few things in mind:

• If you have an idea about how something should be done, and the idea is derived from something in the past, don't describe it as "the way we always did it."

• If your boss is your child's age, put that fact out of your mind, and don't refer to it in conversation. It's likely to alienate that boss.

• If you're a Baby Boomer, learn to text, and learn to love it. When the next big thing inevitably replaces texting, get on board.

On the whole, though, only two pieces of advice are crucial: Don't rely on stereotypes to navigate work relationships, and, whatever you do, don't rely on The Intern for actual career guidance. Just enjoy it.

Paul Freiberger, President of Shimmering Resumes, a career counseling and resume writing firm, specializes in leading individuals to improve their job search and careers. He is the author of When Can You Start? Ace the Job Interview and Get Hired, Third Edition.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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7 Ways To Smooth Over The Age Gap At Work (Or How To Behave If Your Boss Is Your Kid's Age)