Putting Generation Y to Work (acknowledging the actual accrued value of Millennials)

Image of a one way street pointing towards the horizon.
(The Guardian, 2009)

Knowledge is not a one-way street.

Recent statistics indicate that Millenials will dominate nearly 75% of the workforce in Canada by 2028 (The Globe and Mail, 2014). If we are being fair this statistic is not surprising considering the fact that by then many Baby Boomers will have most definitely reached the age of retirement. But how does this deal with the crisis of youth un(der)employment I have been discussing for the past five weeks – what do these young workers do in the meantime so that they can be integrated  into the workforce now!

One of the answers, is reverse mentorship. It is exactly what you think it is. Reverse mentoring is when a younger individual mentors an older member of the organization in areas that the senior employee might be unfamiliar with, such as emerging technologies and social trends. Their insights can be utilized to offer incredible value to the company by helping the business grow organically through information sharing. I think most people can agree that recent graduates are a wealth of untapped, valuable information with knowledge about the latest trends and as well as possessing the most up-to-date skills. Plus, it’s a two-way street, the mentor learns from the mentee and so forth.

A senior executive and young female colleague collaborating on a laptop together
(Talent C, 2012).

From a purely economic perspective hiring a reverse mentor helps you get inside the heads of one of the biggest markets with buying power. In today’s market 36% of Generation Y is tempted to shop beyond their means (Newswire, 2013), and tend toward instant gratification. What better way to learn about what is “hot” and “what is not” for one of the biggest purchasing demographics then by getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth? By hiring a recent graduate a company learns ways to tap into this huge market and attract buyers.

I personally had never heard of reverse mentoring till, again, I was reading the Metro and there was an article on it. I think in any work situation if you have a positive relationship with your mentor you tend to naturally learn from each other simply through water cooler discussion and conversation but explicitly hiring someone to mentor an older employee and bring them up to speed on Instagram, Twitter, “Pin something or other” ­­­(as quoted by my mother) is a new idea that challenges a lot of an established’s company social conventions.

Norman Fairclough’s book Language and Power discusses the ways in which social class and conditions influences communication. One can most certainly agree that within organizations there usually exists a very clear social order, which refers to the structuring of a organization into various domains associated with various types of practices (Fairclough, 2001). The way an organization is structured or constrained through the actions and situations each class experiences helps to shape the hierarchy of the business and develops the power relationships. If you chose to adopt reverse mentorship it is easy to see how a very clearly structured company with rigid roles and power structures may encounter problems when you consider the assumptions that are being made:

  1. The older mentor will appreciate the information being told to them by the younger employee. There is the potential for egos and attitudes. “Older generations may feel threatened by a young person coming in and telling them to change their ways” (The Globe and Mail, 2012).
  2. The company will be willing to pay to hire this employee. As we learnt when discussing internships, many companies could harness the power of the Millennial generation for free if they wanted.
  3. The employee will actually find value in this employment situation. Being employed simply because you are a recent graduate is hardly reassuring, what happens when the next class graduates or your knowledge is not perceived as valuable anymore? If people are just used as a data mining tool are you still contributing and learning as a member of the company?

The clear arrangement of social classes and structure that exists in most companies reflects the top-down communication that exists between upper management and new employees. “The way in which orders of [communication] are structured, and the ideologies which they embody, are determined by the relationships of power in particular social institutions, and in the society as a whole” (Fairclough, 2001, p. 31).  Put into plain language, the way communication is structured and the ideologies of the community determine the relationships of power that exist within the institution, in this case the company and as a result ultimately define the nature of the company’s society. Naturally,  with clear power relationships established by these social conditions the introduction of a reverse mentor means that older employees must relinquish control and challenge the current power relationships and structures. If there is no support from upper management or no forethought put into the hiring of this individual a good idea can fail.

An image of a woman ripping out her hair as a young worker watches.
(Tonnari Post, 2012).

Fairclough (2001) makes the point that not only can some organizations be rigid they are cyclic (recursive), breeding the same social practices: “social structures not only determine social practice, they are also a product of social practice” (p.37). So if a company has always had senior managers dictate to new employees any new employee they hire will experience this rigid power relationship and be keenly aware of their social class and as a result when they become senior managers they will act in the same way to new employees.

Image a three arrows arranged in a circle to signify a cyclic cycle
(Living Unbound, n.d.).

Reverse mentorships offers an amazing opportunity for new employees to suddenly be given a voice with impact but young adults are entering an environment that has many already preordained social structures and rules that may have to be broken for their voice to even be heard or acknowledged. They are entering an intimidating power struggle.

That’s a tall order.

Entrenched company habits are hard to break and it is even harder to battle the egos of the older generation who see the new employee as inexperienced. In addition,there can be personality mismatches. Young mentors need to recognize boundaries and treat their bosses with respect, and bosses need to check their resistance to being instructed by a whippersnapper in a field that – especially where it comes to social media – they might not have a world of enthusiasm for to begin with (The Globe and Mail, 2012).

But this is only one of the ways to overcome the youth un(der)employment crisis, and it can work and it has. Launched in November, MentorshipBC is an online resource designed to provide B.C. small-business owners with access to the wealth of mentor programs available across the province. Entrepreneurs looking for mentorship can search a database of programs. There are also mentoring success stories, links to business resources and a blog (The Globe and Mail, 2014).

By placing them in a meaningful job, related to their field of interest, where their skills and knowledge are valued young adults can help companies create something that is of tangible benefit. However, they have to break the already present social classes and structure in order for their voice to be heard in the power relationship, but if anyone can do we can.

Cartoon of an older employee asking "What else can I do?" to a younger employee.
(Mark Tuchman, n.d.).


Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power, 2nd edition. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Living Unbound. (n.d.). The Cyclic Nature of Living. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://livingunbound.net/lessons-resources/level-1/teachings/cyclic-nature-of-living/

Mark Tuchman. (n.d.). Illustrations. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://www.marktuchman.com/?page_id=330

Newswire. (2013). The Gen Y Reality: Expensive to Live, Easy to Spend, Struggle to Save. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1181527/the-gen-y-reality-expensive-to-live-easy-to-spend-struggle-to-save

Talent C. (2012). Reverse Mentoring – Part of the Journey to a Mentoring Culture!. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://talentc.ca/index.php/2012/reverse-mentoring-part-of-the-journey-to-a-mentoring-culture/

The Globe and Mail. (2014). ‘Reverse Mentoring’ gives Gen Y workers a boost of confidence. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/leadership/reverse-mentoring-gives-gen-y-workers-boost-of-confidence/article16437897/

The Globe and Mail. (2012). Reverse mentoring sees the young teach the old. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-digital/web-strategy/reverse-mentoring-sees-the-young-teach-the-old/article4247172/

The Guardian. (2009). London trail to allow cyclists to pedal the ‘wrong’ way on one-way streets. Retrieved February 27, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/sep/17/bike-blog-one-way-street

Toonari Post. (2012). What a bad hire can do to your business. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from http://www.toonaripost.com/2012/12/us-news/what-a-bad-hire-can-do-to-your-business/


One thought on “Putting Generation Y to Work (acknowledging the actual accrued value of Millennials)

  1. Really interesting Olivia! I think that in a perfect world, reverse mentoring would be a lucrative tool, however my personal experience leads me to believe that an older employee would have to be open to and sincerely willing to learn new tools and adapt their skills. Otherwise, like you mentioned there is potential for reverse mentoring to fail. It seems like a culture change would need to happen in an organization to make reverse mentoring seem “normal.” I wonder if simply calling it something different-like reciprocal mentoring-would help to encourage its success. An older employee might not feel overly threatened initially if they believe it is a two-way process.

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