What to do when you're the oldest one in the office

Reading: How Not To Be The Office Mom

Parenting & Caregiving

How Not To Be The Office Mom

Resist the urge to tell your millennial co-worker her outfit is too "risqué" for the workplace

By Diane di Costanzo

I was recently asked to speak at an event organized by CIRKEL, a new networking salon organized by Charlotte Japp, a millennial woman who seeks to bring baby boomers working in the creative industries together with their millennial counterparts.

“We have a lot to learn from each other,” says Japp, now a senior creative at Live Nation and formerly of Vice, where she had a similar role producing events and branded content. “The trouble is boomers and millennials don’t sit at the same table.”

She’s right. But my first reaction was this: Do millennials even want older people at their table? And this thought sent me straight back to junior high school where I would wander the social minefield called the cafeteria, hoping for a table that would have me. (A note about me in the seventh grade. I was Hermione: great grades, zero friends, frizzy hair.)

Also: Salon? Can anyone who is more contemporary than, say, Gertrude Stein really pull off a salon?

The answer to the “table” question is a complex one, so more on that in a minute.

The answer to the “salon” question is easier: Yes, Charlotte Japp, a spectacularly connected and confident young woman, can pull off a salon, no big deal. The event in question was at the lovely Bowery Poetry Project in lower Manhattan. Charlotte’s only request was that I speak about my career for about 20 minutes, create a Powerpoint with visuals depicting my various decades in the media, and bring my own dongle.

Powerpoint, that I can do. Dongle, check. But 20 minutes on my 30-plus years in the media industry (which we used to call publishing)? Would anyone, especially a millennial, want to listen to even a two-minute monologue on, essentially, time spent toiling in front of an IBM Selectric, and after that a computer the color of nude pantyhose, and after that a laptop?

A college pal of mine who also works in the media industry told me a heartbreaking story about going-away drinks for a departing millennial colleague. The invitation was widely circulated, but not to my older friend. She caught wind of the plan and asked the organizer why she wasn’t invited. The organizer prevaricated: it’s just a small thing; they knew she commuted; they didn’t think she’d be able to attend. My friend responded emotionally, and awkwardness ensued and endured long after the event, making her feel like a pariah.

Now emotions and social awkwardness are largely “felt” facts. They exist in the mind and heart, but aren’t necessarily obvious to others. That said, the fact of my wandering the Central Junior High cafeteria, tray in hand, looking for a friendly face or, at the very least, a table where my eating a sandwich solo would be unobserved — well, that’s still very real to me. As is the hurt felt by my friend. Which is why she fears, like so many of us 50-something workers, we’re not wanted at the table.

What I learned at the boomer-plus-millennial salon? We are very much welcomed. But attached to that invitation — Sit at our table! Join us for drinks! — are rules, let’s call them, that make coexistence, and more to the point, collaboration more productive. These I gleaned from the millennials at the salon, offered more as musings than edicts, so this rule-like listing below is entirely mine.

1. Don’t Be an Office Mom
I’ll admit to having maternal feelings in the workplace. And while less offensive than sexual feelings (and fondlings), they are also unwanted. Millennial women most likely have mothers who mother them — sometimes far too much. And whether the Office Mom knows it or not, her maternal instincts tend to project unarticulated judgments like “you’re wearing that to work?” and “because I said so,” neither of which are productive, especially if the millennial in question is your boss.

2. Adapt to Survive
This piece of advice is applicable to absolutely every aspect of humanity, including the survival of the species. Indeed, any species. Despite that, it’s sometimes hard to remember in the office, especially among us tenured workers. I hear women my age complain bitterly about how younger colleagues fail to comply with what they view as normative workplace behavior — they walk around with headphones on, they look at their phones in meetings when you’re talking, they ignore emails in favor of Slack conversations. Best to remember that what’s considered “normative” is ever changing. Put another way, “same as it ever was” is a fabulous song lyric but a less than fabulous workplace mantra.

3. Ageism Cuts Both Ways
Here’s a real life story, born of a “persona” document from a brand. One of brand X’s personas (i.e., target audiences) was the 50-year-old, empty-nesting and semi-retired female, whom the brand described as “technophobic” and therefore unlikely to consume video content and use social channels. My younger colleagues nodded along. I was aghast: did you not hear me say I can make a Powerpoint deck and that I carry a dongle on me at all times? Why that’s ageism at work, Brand X!

The truth is, some of us 50-year-old women tend to paint millennials with a similarly broad brush. Millennials, women of my age tend to say, are entitled and self-absorbed. They’re addicted to their devices and social media. Some of them are, just as there are some 50-year-olds who can’t figure out how Instagram Stories work. But to define people based solely on their age category is, simply put, to disrespect them, however unwittingly. Whatever your age, I think we can agree that for too long women have been disrespected in the workplace. Let’s not do that to each other, O.K.?

  1. Fred Tietze

    As usual, a pithy insight to this ageism dynamic. I’ve always found that unbaised respect for any person (age is just a number) and commitment to active listening along with good dose of a sense of humor creates a colaborative dynamic ! Great to see you writing!

  2. Kathren Vargas

    Um, I have no idea what a “dongle” is, and I’m a cosmetologist as well as many other professional hats that I wear, a salon is what we get our hair, nails and facials, each month. So, please, splain, Lucy.

  3. Cindy

    So now it’s age. It used to be gender, before that it was race, before that it was ethnic background. Soon something else will replace age as a topic, with new labels to assign and more fodder for freelance writers. This too shall pass.

  4. emily saltzman

    When my former boss referred to me as “mother hen” I was outraged and pointed out I did not seek out this role. In a poorly run and stressful environment, younger employees will be driven toward supportive, experienced and frankly kinder colleagues. I am very careful not to extend myself in that way any more but one can become the “office mom” by default.

  5. Bridget Trusty

    I agree! I am Gen Xer and I am quite sure that Baby Boomers have issues with me! Each generation will clash with the next. The key is to have a culture where the generations are working together and in harmony. It truly works! Just saying…….

    • lesley

      Hi Bridget: we agree. There will always be friction. Let’s just hash it out together. Thanks for the note!

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