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Why having intergenerational friendships at work is important

Having older or younger friends at work is key—and not just for career development.

Why having intergenerational friendships at work is important
[Photo: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images]

All else being equal, people often choose to hang out with others who are like them on a variety of dimensions. Many of the people you count as your friends are probably similar to you in age, marital status, wealth, and education.

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This habit to engage mostly with people similar to you likely carries over to your work life, especially since you may naturally spend time with people who have similar jobs and are at a similar level of the organization as you are.

There are some good reasons to want to expand your network of friends at work and add a few people who are of different ages. It’s important that you develop these relationships as friendships because you’d like to be able to have informal conversations in which there is no expectation that you’re angling for something. In addition, you’d like to be able to speak freely about the joys and frustrations of your work.

One great reason to have friends who differ from you in age is that you’ll likely be at different levels of the organization. If you’re younger, then getting a view of what it’s like to be in a more advanced role can be really eye-opening. A lot of times, you look at what leaders and managers are doing and think that job couldn’t really be that hard. While you might be right, it is more likely that you’re unaware of some of the complexities. Informal conversations can often bring out more of the details of what is involved in those upper-tier positions.

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If you’re older, then it’s valuable to understand the experience of people who are closer to the front lines of the work being done. When you spend a lot of time speaking to other people in management roles, it can be easy to lose sight of the details of the work that is being done by people who may be two or more levels below you on the org chart. On top of that, the people who report to you (directly or indirectly) often won’t tell you about some of the things that annoy them about work. Having someone who will speak freely can add a lot of understanding about how things are really going in the workplace.

Intergenerational friendships also can add a lot of context that is helpful. Folks who are older than you have probably seen a lot of business cycles. As a result, they are often less likely to overreact to the highs and lows of work. When you’re younger, you tend to think things are better than they really are when times are good and worse than they are when things are bad. Your older friends can help temper those extremes.

Spending time with people younger than you can often help you to see newer trends you might otherwise miss. All else being equal, new technologies are adopted more quickly by younger people. When an important new advance is on the horizon, it is valuable to find out about its strengths and weaknesses before you miss out.

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Finally, intergenerational friendships can be really motivating. Early in your career, you can get a lot of valuable information about effective ways to navigate your career. There are times when there are opportunities that seem exciting to you that may not be worth pursuing and others that are not obviously rewarding that can have a huge benefit for your future. Your older colleagues can help you figure out which chances you should jump on and which you are safe to skip.

As you get older, you may find yourself getting jaded at work. There are likely to be days when you feel like you shuffle a lot of emails around and attend a lot of meetings without always seeing the value of the work you’re doing. When that happens, it can be energizing to talk to friends who are early in their careers and are excited about what they may accomplish. Those friendships can remind you of why you got involved in the work you’re doing in the first place.

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