Bailey Parnell Drives Intergenerational Dynamics with a Call for Calibre Leadership in Tech-Driven Times

Jason McRobbie

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One of the greatest strengths an organization can draw upon lies within allying with the full spectrum of generational talent at play. Making the most of those intergenerational dynamics is far more than merely a matter of minding the gaps, but widening our minds, while ditching more than a few assumptions. We sit down to discuss with Bailey Parnell, founder and CEO of SkillsCamp, and internationally renowned for her intergenerational insights, to talk about the pace of change, latchkey kids and the need for calibre Elders.

Key Takeaways:

  • While generational differences are real, they need to be recognized and understood in the context of the parenting, culture, technology and professional life and expectations of the time.
  • The need for soft skills and a commitment to EDIB, particularly amongst leadership, is key to unlocking the innovative potential of intergenerational dynamics.
  • Leaders need to reevaluate ageism and consider anchoring future efforts with a ‘wisdom worker’ or three on the team.

With five generations racing to keep pace with rate of change in the workplace, Bailey Parnell, founder and CEO of SkillsCamp, helps employers and employees alike build the soft-skills needed to not only surpass the generation gap, but build better business via a little human understanding.

And with generative AI poised to change the way we work in ways yet unthinkable, Bailey is more ardent than ever that bridging those generational gaps begins with leaders asking some of life’s most fundamental questions.

“What leaders will need to be asking themselves as generative AI finds itself in more parts of society, are those existential questions that were never required in the prior paradigm of capitalist business,” said Bailey. “What does it mean to be human? Do you support humanity? How? They never had to come to work with those questions answered.”

Named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2016 and a dynamic TEDx speaker with over 3 million views, Bailey has actually been exploring generational differences going back to her undergraduate work at Ryerson University. Little—and everything—has changed.

“Generational gaps do exist as they relate to differences in attitudes, opinions and values between older and younger generations. Historically, this gap has always existed. There has always been an upcoming generation and there has always been a generation that has been doing things the way they have for 50 years,” said Bailey. “The nuances and nature of it have changed over time, but now success in the working world inherently includes that tech element and tech literacy as it never did. When you are talking about generational communication and dynamics, there is no other area where that is seen in greater contrast.”

As Bailey points out, bridging those gaps to unify an organization has always been challenging, but today’s pace of change makes it even more so.

“Let’s talk about a few things that have changed and have changed the intergenerational dynamics in turn. Technology is, of course, one and perhaps the biggest of them because there has obviously been a very rapid evolution of technology in the last few decades,” said Bailey. “Go back to the ‘90s or even the early 2000s—it wasn’t that long ago—and people didn’t even have computers in their homes.”

To put that quickening pace into perspective, Bailey points out that it has even eclipsed our traditional definition of generations.

“The rate of change has so drastically increased that you now have generations that HAD a way of doing things, but they really only did it that way for five years, said Bailey. “We used to say that generations spanned 20 years, but now, if you look at Millennials, the way that older and younger Millennials were raised is dramatically different—from the politics of the time to technology of the time to the parenting. And that’s just in a 20-year span.”

As might come as no surprise, tapping that tech to full organizational potential is hinged upon a greater acceptance and understanding of the origins of the individuals involved.

“So, when you introduce new tech, you also have to introduce new learning alongside that tech—and that ties into other things that are good for everybody from providing flexibility to open collaboration to relationship building,” said Bailey. “It comes down to flexibility in design when you are looking at how to recruit and keep X, Y, Z generation. You tailor to them, but this is not just happening generationally, but across the full spectrum of identities.”

SkillsCamp, Bailey explains, lays the groundwork for digging deeper into that spectrum.

“There are some things that are inevitably true that come back to when a person grew up. When we do programming about intergenerational communications and understanding at SkillsCamp, we always ask people to hold two things in mind at the same time,” said Bailey. “The first is that what we are going to talk about today might help you better connect with someone—why someone is saying or doing things the way they are. The second thing is that we are going to let people reveal themselves to us. We’re not going to practice ageism. We’re not going to assume.”

To show just how different those differences were, Bailey draws people’s attention to four primary areas—parenting, culture, technology and professional life and expectations.

“Parenting is one that always gets people. Let’s do a comparison between GenX and GenZ,” said Bailey. “GenX was named the Latchkey Generation, and the reason why was because there was a move of third-wave feminism along with more divorces, adult-focused government and single-family households. This was all in the zeitgeist,” said Bailey. “So, they were dubbed the Latchkey Generation because they were the first generation that actually had to wear their key around their necks to let themselves back into the house after school.”

“So, what does that create? Maybe that creates some kids who are used to not being the centre of attention. They have to be resourceful, figure things out for themselves and maybe that translates to them feeling that way when they enter the workplace,” said Bailey, before drawing a stark contrast with the GenZ stereotype of over-protected entitlement.

“But then, of course, GenZ enters the work world or the world of social media where there is constant comparison. There are no awards or last place. You can’t have anything just because you want it. You don’t get told that you’re special. This can be a real juxtaposition based solely on how they were raised, and parenting is just one paradigm.”

Beyond parenting and technology, Bailey points to the changing economic realities, along with social and cultural norms, that continue to impact generational perspectives.

“When Millennials graduated, they did so into the 2008 economic crisis. GenZ grew up in the fallout of that crisis and graduated into a pandemic. So maybe, this affects their view of working life and institutions,” said Bailey. “On top of that, you cannot underestimate the loom of the climate emergency on these generations. It’s not in 50 years, but right now. We’re seeing our country on fire. We’re seeing floods. This is making people make decisions differently and I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Unfortunately, what is needed to bridge those gaps and navigate those waves of unrelenting change and enduring chaos is something which Bailey finds currently lacking in the current leadership paradigm.

“I feel there is a quality Elder gap right now. I am here for the phase of leadership where we return to almost an Indigenous understanding of leadership—becoming true Elders.  We have required less of our Elders. In the West, we just push them away, out of the workplace and into a home. More than ever, I think that Elder reengagement could be a beautiful way to help leaders, particularly as AI proliferates in the workplace,” said Bailey.

As for where leaders stand to grow and gain the most in return, Bailey points to the need to foster mutual respect grounded in recognizing the whole person.

“This happens through a commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging (EDIB) work. When I open my talks around intergenerational communications, I refer to the Stanford Identity wheel with all of its fits in terms of gender, religion, etc. and draw their attention to age. Age is very prominent on our social identity wheel—who we are, how we grew up, how we perceive the world and how our neuro-networks were formed, what was going on at that time,” said Bailey.

Unfortunately, the most common practice of ageism is treating age like the elephant in the room.

“Strangely though, I often find age is left out of the EDIB conversation. ‘No, no, don’t ask someone their age.’ We don’t talk about age,” said Bailey. “We make jokes and do all sorts of things to avoid talking about it, but age is probably one of the most impactful things on how we see the world.

Moreover, as Bailey emphasized, “Age is the only aspect of identity that changes for us all across the wheel. How can we not talk about it?”

As for what a return of quality Elder leadership might bring to the multiple generations within ever-changing workplace, Bailey relates a recent revelation from an enduring inspiration.

“I had a dinner with one of my mentors the other night. She is 79 and her husband is 92 and she is still out there, killing it. She mentioned two things that stuck out. She told me that she is a part of the Modern Elder Academy and the phrase she uses when she speaks is ‘Wisdom Workers,’” said Bailey.

“Wisdom workers to me is the nature of what we are getting at here. It’s just wrong to write off such a wealth of talent capital. We have talent shortages literally everywhere right now, so for the first time maybe ever, companies across industries are finding ways to actively bring people out of retirement,” said Bailey. “So, maybe if we use the flexible structures that the younger generations are calling for, you can bring some Wisdom Workers in a couple days a week virtually or otherwise. It works for everybody.”

In short, a big part of bridging any perceived generation gaps comes from ensuring all voices are not only being heard, but grounded by a continuity which reinvigorates the reigning definition of Elders and calibre leadership alike.

More than ever, Bailey views human-centric leaderships as the driving force behind her work, especially with even more massive change rolling out on the wave of Generative AI.

“We’ve gotten away from supporting humanity and now humans are just supposed to support the capitalist system. Really, that is the reigning system, even over democracy and obviously not just here,” said Bailey. “That said, the pandemic certainly democratized hardship. It was a first for a lot of people who I don’t think had experienced anything difficult before. My only hope is that it provided some shared human experiences that helps them connect with others in a room regardless of their age.”

For those who embrace what Bailey calls “co-liberation through collaboration,” the archetypal generation gaps might even be embraced for the wells of wisdom each hold.

“If leaders can just take hold of that conversation, everyone wins. You can certainly come to companies like us if you don’t know how. You can read this article. You can have a learning session,” said Bailey. “Importantly though, when you are thinking about diversity and representation around the table, you can make sure you are including Elders too because I promise you, they might see the world differently—and change how you see it too.”