As she entered her 40s, electronic music producer and DJ Paula Burrows sensed an unwelcome career shift.
“You stop getting certain kinds of bookings,” said Burrows, who goes by Cozmic Cat. “You’re expected to maybe DJ weddings and bar mitzvahs, but not anything cool.” This ageism was compounded by Burrows’s identity as a queer, Black woman. “I have to work harder than a white dude,” she said. “I have to work harder than a white, 22-year-old woman.”
Burrows built her career in a culture where DJs focused more on making authentic music than on strategic business development. But to combat so many systemic obstacles, she needed more of the latter and less of the former. So Burrows got a mentor. She contacted Canada’s Music Incubator, which runs a mentorship program called Artist Entrepreneur and uses the digital platform Mentorly to connect creatives with industry experts.
Over two months in 2020, Burrows worked with Ryan Warner, 36, CMI’s programs director. He taught her about grant writing, royalties and contract negotiation. Together, they explored Burrows’s personal brand and social media footprint. By the spring of 2021, Burrows had negotiated better terms on two contracts and attracted hundreds more Instagram followers.
“When I was 25, I literally thought I knew everything,” she said. “I had to reach a stage of humility: These are the skills that other people can teach me. I’m open to the wisdom to understand what I’m missing.”
As the pandemic forces a moment of professional reinvention, there’s a growing hunger for mentorship — guidance from someone who has blazed the trail you’re hoping to follow. But the relationship isn’t always built on a wizened elder guiding a naive upstart. Today, mentorship is often intergenerational, with older and experienced workers now students of younger professionals with different skill sets and social styles.
It’s unclear how many organizations formally host intergenerational mentorship programs, though they’re found in the nonprofit world and at corporations including Deloitte, Cisco and Procter & Gamble. But professionals and creatives alike seem newly open to such relationships.
“More employees are warming up to this idea that it’s OK to be mentored by somebody junior as long as the person has the necessary expertise,” said Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a professor in the College of Management at Metropolitan State University and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota who studies mentorships.
Over the past five years, Chaudhuri has seen intergenerational or reverse mentorships, proliferate. “When I first floated the idea, critics said reverse mentoring is more of a fad,” Chaudhuri said. “They were surprised how this intervention has stayed and is thriving.”
Before the pandemic, companies launched intergenerational mentoring programs to help aging employees gain greater digital fluency. They also hoped such programs would attract and retain millennial talent by giving younger workers direct access to senior leadership. Today, the retirement rate is rising due to the pandemic, but “older” workers — which increasingly includes millennials — remain eager for professional development.
A 2020 survey from AARP found that 77% of workers ages 40 to 65 were very or somewhat interested in new computer and technology training, and 62% said they hoped to improve professional soft skills.
The shifting diversity and inclusion landscape has bolstered the trend. Chaudhuri says the summer 2020 protests turned many younger workers of color into racial justice educators of their older, white colleagues. They’re also newly mentoring older workers of color who never had diversity and inclusion resources.
“Disenfranchisement left a lot of [older] people out of the loop and now they’re finding their way back in,” said Miguel Guillén, 62, a Mexican American artist and program manager for the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA).
Artists Up, an equity-driven collaboration between ArtsWA and other partners, offers free Mentorly sessions for artists, including many creatives of color. Some 43% of the program’s mentees are between the ages of 50 and 64.
On the technology front, the pandemic forced many older, experienced employees to seek digital guidance from younger colleagues. Chaudhuri calls these “mentoring episodes” — short-term, high-quality, often reciprocal interactions. “I’m learning about new statistical tools from many young PhD scholars,” she said. “They are having immediate access to my social network and increasing visibility because of me.”
Older workers say intergenerational mentorship keeps them relevant.
“I felt that if I’ll continue to add value to my job and to the organization, I needed to pivot and learn as quickly as possible,” said Peter McManama, 63, senior director of U.S. finance at insurance company John Hancock/Manulife.
In 2019, McManama founded the company’s Cross Generational Learning Program. To expand it, he partnered with employee resource group GenerationNEXT, which focuses on professional development. The GenerationNEXT cohort wrote an algorithm to assign mentorship teams based on age and interests. Then, teams met biweekly during the pandemic to discuss business and technical skills, as well as networking and personal branding. McManama improved his Microsoft Office skills — and developed a newfound respect for his millennial colleagues.
“I grew up with different learning experiences,” McManama said. “Now I’m embracing their learning experiences.” To him, this means self-learning. “I still have peers who say, ‘Can you do this, can you do that?’ I’m like, sure, but you can do it yourself,” McManama said.
Massimiliano Roveda, who runs the Italian commercial underwriting division at Zurich Insurance, doesn’t consider himself old at 43, but he’s aware of generational differences. “Up to now in my career, I’ve been in an environment that’s quite reserved and based on [hierarchy],” he said. “I struggle to talk to people who are much more senior than me.”
To stay current, Roveda joined Zurich’s intergenerational mentoring program. His partner, 27-year old Suzy Batey, is significantly his junior in the company but has no qualms about calling management with questions or concerns. “How Suzy creates a business relationship with senior people helps me reposition myself and my mind-set,” Roveda said.
In return, Roveda has helped Batey navigate work conflicts. When she and a senior colleague recently butted heads, he talked her through the situation. She agreed that employees of her generation can sometimes get ahead of themselves. “You want to run before you can walk,” she said. “It’s been helpful to learn that you can take your time.”
Some older professionals are actively looking for millennial and Gen Z approaches to business. In 2000, after a legal career and raising two children, Susan Crater, now 61, opened a fabric and wallpaper business. She called it Sister Parish, after a successful design firm founded by her grandmother.
For nearly two decades, she sold textiles only in person. “I didn’t do any marketing. None. Imagine that you’ve never sold yourself outside of visiting a showroom,” she said. “It was really old-school.”
Crater knew she was missing an entire millennial audience — and that if she didn’t capture them, she would lose market share.
In 2018, she hired her 27-year-old daughter Eliza Harris as creative director.
“We live on the Internet,” Crater said. “Eliza was responsible for that.”
Sister Parish has since grown from five employees to 16 and increased its Instagram following to 82,000 from 2,000. This allowed Crater to capitalize on the home renovation boom during the pandemic. She now believes only an Instagram-fluent shopper could have accomplished this. “Eliza told me that people buy when they’re having a glass of wine at 9 p.m.,” she said.
Buoyed by that success, Crater sought out more millennial mentorship. Last year, she signed up for Cirkel, a mentorship matchmaking start-up with an intergenerational bent. Each month, Cirkel pairs users from different generations who are well-positioned to understand the other person’s professional goals. The user base is approximately a third millennials, a third Gen Xers and a third baby boomers. (The company charges a monthly fee of $55 and offers a financial assistance program.)
“We look at it like a gym membership for your career,” said Cirkel’s founder, Charlotte Japp, 30. Growing up, Japp had watched her parents get pushed out of corporate jobs and then struggle to find their way back into the workforce. After college, while working as a junior creative at Vice, she became her parents’ unofficial career coach. “I was giving them intel on social media, tech, trends,” Japp said. “They were mentoring me about office politics.”
Japp says many Cirkel users have formed long-term relationships, though Crater has used the platform more like a consultant database. The company connected her with a 32-year-old marketer who was an expert at Pinterest algorithms and a 34-year-old sales consultant, who helped her develop performance indicators for a contractor she had hired. A digital producer and stylist, both in their 30s, helped the company throw an innovative online community-building event.
Crater loves the practical advice she’s received from her younger mentors. “I was brought up in a more traditional workplace,” she said. “Eliza was brought up to think that you can capture your passion. No one talked about passion when I was in law school.”
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.