Seniors teaching seniors

What retirees can learn from soon-to-be high school graduates, and vice-versa

By Larry Abdo
Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I was sitting at my desk wrestling with Facebook; trying to say what I wanted to say using a technology I didn’t understand. My 26-year-old nephew Matt happened to be in the office at the time, so I said, “What am I doing? You’re young. You do this!”

After a few minutes of increasingly frustrated keyboard tapping and touchpad swiping, my nephew shook his head and admitted, “Sorry, Unc. I’ve grown up with this technology my whole life and even I don’t know how to do this.”

Then it hit me: even at 26 there was a language that had passed my nephew by. If the state of technology and communication was changing that rapidly, imagine the gap between me, at 68, and a high school senior (which, incidentally, is who I needed to solve my Facebook problem)! 

That gap was important. It meant there was a whole generation of people out there — several generations, honestly — with whom I was ill-equipped to communicate effectively; a group on whom my message would always be lost , simply because we were sailing past one another oblivious to, or willfully ignorant of, what each other had to offer.

When I was growing up, I recall absorbing invaluable lessons from my parents and grandparents by talking to them or just being near them. I was able to reach back into the generations that came before me and harvest lessons that would sustain me on my own journey to adulthood. If communication changes so fundamentally that different generations don’t even know how to talk to each other, what great lessons will be lost?

I had a choice: dismiss the younger generation as green and uneducated and lament the fact that that the gap between us was unbridgeable, or I could try to do something about it.

Living in seven generations

Over the years, I have honed a theory about our place in the world and how we interact with those that travel with us. I call it “living in seven generations.”

Over the course of each of our lives, if we’re lucky, we have the opportunity to touch seven different generations. From our great-grandparents to our great-grandchildren, we can influence (and be influenced by) the world in ways both trivial and profound simply by interacting with the people around us.

This can be both a daunting burden and an energizing responsibility — thinking beyond your own generation injects the weight of history into day-to-day actions that otherwise seem mundane or unimportant. But it also creates an opportunity to extend your relevance beyond its usual shelf-life.

On the path to irrelevance

If you were to plot a graph of a person’s relevance over his lifetime, the line would be a familiar-looking bell curve plateauing around the latter half of middle age — the mid- to late-fifties when a person is old enough to have earned valuable experience but young enough to still have a reasonable shot at being considered “in-touch”. The line then drops off sharply as the “golden years” set in and whatever wisdom a person has amassed becomes increasingly discounted as the old-fashioned, back-in-my-day musings of a bygone era.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could extend a person’s period of relevance so that earned wisdom of a lifetime might be usefully passed on to the generations that follow where it could be blended with the new ideas that grow wild in the soil of youthful exuberance.

It turns out we can. All you have to do is ask.

Understanding seniors

When I realized that the answer to my questions might lie in the minds of 18-year-olds, I decided to go to the source. I called my alma mater, De La Salle High School, and told them I wanted to put together an inter-generational exchange of ideas. If they would provide the seniors, I would provide the hamburgers — what better way to ply youthful Minneapolitans into a conversation than the promise of free My Burger!

A few weeks later, I and two similarly-aged colleagues (Lynne Robertson of FAME and Rick Dow of The DOJO Group) met with 25 teenagers to see if we could bridge a gap between young and old. The conversation-starter was simple (“What do you think of our generation and how stupid are we?”) but the conversation was anything but.

Once we got past the youthful objections (seniors aren’t tech-savvy, we’re short on tolerance and long on prejudice, we dismiss the kids too readily and at our own peril), something surprising happened: a group of wide-eyed high school seniors, full of confidence and self-assurance, dusted the french fry crumbs from their fingers and earnestly explained what they were longing to learn from us.

They wanted to know how to have an eye-to-eye conversation and how to write a letter by hand. They were jealous of our ability to connect with people in person and wanted lessons on old-fashioned table manners. These kids who seemed to love spending time buried in gadgets were yearning to join the real world.

More than anything, these young people whose lives are awash in technology and whose daily interactions with a screen far outpace their interactions with an actual person, were genuinely afraid that they would end up alone; that their abilities to type and text and click  —  the very skills that make them the perfect candidate to solve my Facebook problem — come at the expense of an ability to personally connect. They see the loving relationships that their grandparents have nurtured over a lifetime of person-to-person interaction and they worry that they lack the skill to even start down such a road, let alone navigate it into their own golden years.

Needless to say, these were not questions that were solved over lunch. What began as a simple effort to learn a little more about teenagers and to suggest to them the value of learning from earlier generations quickly evolved into an eager and mutual exchange of needs and wants. And over the course of a school lunch period, an opportunity unfolded before us: Both sets of seniors were given a chance to influence another generation. And by grasping the opportunity, each generation extended its own reach a little.

I look forward to continuing the conversation with, and learning from, this promising young generation.

Existing in seven generations isn’t easy, but with a little effort we can make our lives better by improving the way we all interact and learn.

Now if I can only figure out Facebook, I might be able to let somebody know about all of this.


Larry Abdo is a leader of four Minneapolis-based businesses: He is the owner of the Nicollet Island Inn, owner/creator of Big Fat Bacon, president and chief manager of Abdo Markethouse, and president of Gopher State Ice.