Generations: What Can Older and Younger Engineers Learn from Each Other?

By John R. Platt

How many times has this scenario played out in your workplace? A group of younger engineers starts work and fails to recognize the experience and wisdom of their older counterparts. Meanwhile, the senior engineers look at their younger counterparts and instantly dismiss their new ideas and perspectives.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t. The truth is that both generations of engineers should be listening more closely to each other because each group brings something unique to the table.

Not just that, if they open their ears, each group may find that they can learn a heck of a lot from each other.

Enthusiasm vs. Perspective

The most important thing that millennials bring to the office, experts say, is their energy and desire to create change.

“It’s the enthusiasm that you find in younger millennials that is often a catalyst to significant change, innovation and disruption,” says Robert Allio, adjunct professor of engineering at Brown University. “If you’re just coming out of graduate school, or if you have worked a few years, you are anxious to see some positive change in the old systems and procedures that have been adopted by your corporation. They don’t necessarily conform to the models that these younger technical people may have.”


This makes millennials potentially some of the most entrepreneurial of engineers. “By far the preponderance of entrepreneurial ideas come from people who don’t know any better and are prepared to disregard the old models for what the customers want,” he says.

However, that disregard of the past can also be a bit of a trap, as a focus solely on what is new can blind people to the underlying systems that built something up in the first place.

“Millennials can lack perspective,” says Ben Landers, president and CEO of an analytics company called Blue Corona. “For example, they see how antiquated the healthcare industry is, but they don’t understand that it’s going to take more than new technology to solve these problems.”

But anyone who has been working in a field for a long period of time may also lose perspective and fail to recognize what’s new or what needs to change in order to keep up with the times. “I think the older generation needs to look at these sources of innovation and take another look at whether or not the systems that have been in place for 10, 20, 50 years are really still appropriate,” Allio says.

Speed vs. Patience

Sometimes working with people from different generations may feel like a never-ending replay of the fabled race between the tortoise and the hare. Steve Maloy, director of TDK Corporation of America, says this relates to a big difference between millennials and Generation X or baby boomers. Millennials, he says, focus on speed. “They excel at knocking out a lot of tasks quickly by leveraging high-tech shortcuts and resources.” He says this is a key skill that older engineers could pick up from their younger partners.


Older engineers, on the other hand, may focus more on teamwork, relationships and process. “I think millennials can pay close attention to the appreciation that their more experienced engineering colleagues have for due diligence and process,” he says. “These virtues are critical to establishing the strong, valuable relationships that any top engineer needs. They set a strong framework for success.”

Landers says he agrees with this point. “I do think modern technology has created a bias for instant gratification,” he says. “Millennials can learn a lot about patience from the older generation.”

Allio echoes this point. “The members of the older generation, which includes me, have a good deal more patience than the younger technical individuals. Impulses that young engineers often have don’t necessarily produce the expected results.” He says the perseverance necessary to give things time to develop properly comes from wisdom and judgment. “Of course, those are two qualities that are typically only developed or acquired over time.” They are, however, things that can be learned by watching others with experience.


One of the biggest changes brought to the workplace by the newer generations is a focus on diversity. “The millennial generation has brought much more diversity to the engineering field than at any other time in my career,” Malloy says. “This change is good-it brings more perspectives into a field that relies on considering challenges from all angles. It has also enriched the general international culture, introducing an international flair that was not as strong in previous times.”

This creates opportunities for new markets, but only if people open themselves to understanding the needs of a diverse marketplace. “Historically we’ve had a very domestic market,” Allio says. “If that’s all the experience you have dealing with, then the challenge of accepting that people from different cultures have different needs is, I think, something that older generations need to pay attention to.”

That’s something they can learn from their millennial teammates. “The older generation gets those insights and knowledge, typically, from people in the younger cadre of the managerial force,” he says.

A Sense of Story

One important skillset that Allio feels younger engineers tend to lack is the ability to tell a story. “They’re good at solving differential equations but less adept at articulating what’s going on and what needs to happen,” he says. “They’re handicapped in that sense.” Lacking storytelling ability, he says, means millennials may fail to excite people to support their ideas and programs. On the other hand, if millennials can tell stories about how they see the need to disrupt something, then they can create support and coalition to help make those goals a reality.

The best way to gain that skill, he says, is to listen to and observe older managers who have had more practice in telling their stories. Meanwhile, the best way to build a sense of story within a multigenerational group is simply for people to sit down with each other. “Small group discussions allow older managers to share their perceptions of what’s going on with younger managers, and vice-versa,” he says.

Of course, the flip side of being able to tell your story is the ability to listen to someone else’s, especially if they have a different point of view than your own. “Those two skills are complementary,” Allio says, adding that this dual skill is something that both generations need to have. “As a young engineer, you’ve got the responsibility to introduce some of these sometimes unusual concepts of what we need to do to get to the market more effectively. And the older generation needs to be much more receptive to some of the possibilities that are being put before them.”

Ignore the Differences

Of course, the big question remains: are different generations really all that different from each other? Maybe not.

“The same stereotypes that have been said about millennials have also been said about Baby Boomers and Generation X,” Landers says. “Some millennials demonstrate feelings of entitlement and laziness, but the same is true of just about every generation.”

Ray Zinn, the former CEO of Micrel and the longest-serving CEO of a semiconductor company, agrees. “There is no unreasonable difference between millennials and my generation,” he says. The real difference, he says, lies on the corporate level. “Is your company new or is your company old,” he asks. Some companies may have different cultures and provide different benefits, but in his experience, he says, “We’d hire a millennial and he would be no different than me.”

In other words, stop focusing on the differences and focus on what you can accomplish together.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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