Your Next Mentor May Be Younger Than You
And why that's a good thing.
My first mentor in journalism was Joanna Molloy, a small woman with a huge personality; she was the razor-sharp longtime columnist for both the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Joanna and her husband, George, hired me as an assistant for their gossip column at the News when I was just 23, fresh out of journalism school and cocky as hell.
Hailing from the Bronx, Joanna is tough as nails and terrifying—until you get to know her. Then she is like a mother hen who just wants to make sure you hatch and hatch well. From the very start, I wanted to impress her. I worked longer, harder, and faster—and jumped higher than she asked. In return, she taught me how to be a better reporter, a better writer, and a better human. (Seriously.)
Because of Joanna, I always assumed mentors had to be older than you.
The first time I was ever a mentor was to a woman slightly younger than me, Leah Chernikoff. I hired Leah as an assistant editor at a start-up women’s magazine with a terrible name back in 2007. I tried to be a Joanna to Leah. I wanted to be nurturing and give her advice even as she worked harder and faster than any of the other assistant editors.
The magazine with the terrible name folded and I brought Leah with me back to the News. We continued working together for years and both moved on to different stages in our careers. Today she is the editorial director of Elle.com, which she has successfully repositioned to appeal to millennial women. But she recently told me that she sees the young women who work for her as her own mentors.
“I'm at least five years older than many of my coworkers and despite my being supposedly wiser and their boss, I find myself taking notes from them on new apps, trending hashtags, and the latest way to stream live video,” Leah told me over drinks one night. I do the same thing with the young women in my own office at Yahoo, where I am the managing editor. I am constantly asking for help on all things tech from coding to Instagramming.
Historically, members of the older generation passed down skills and knowledge to their younger counterparts. Inherent in that model was the idea that the young generation knew its place in this hierarchy. One day, with enough skill and experience, they too would become mentors.
But this long-held paradigm has changed radically in just the past five years as digital content has replaced print content, social media has become a go-to distribution platform, and almost everyone works at least part of the time from mobile devices. The amount of face time in an office has decreased. Few of us write things on paper any more. We hardly even talk on the phone.
Born squarely in the digital age, millennials—who are set to outnumber boomers in the workplace and as the largest living generation this year—are the first to practically grow up with laptops and phones in hand. That’s why they are more often than not much savvier at using this technology than their Gen X and boomer counterparts. “Millennials have a tremendous amount of native knowledge about technology,” says Karen Shnek Lippman, a managing director and recruiter at the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, a headhunting firm. “They were raised in a world where they consumed information, purchased products, and interacted with peers on devices. The workplace has changed due to technology, and we need to learn how to stay relevant.”
I recently co-wrote a novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes that was released in May. Lucy worked in magazine fashion editorial at Hearst and Condé Nast from ages 20 to 37. Then she got a job at a tech company. She didn’t know anything about tech and received her first performance review from a young woman who had recently been an intern.
She was shocked.
Our book, which is loosely based on some of Lucy’s own experiences, tells the story of a fashion magazine editor, forty-something Imogen Tate, whose twenty-something assistant, Eve, becomes her boss when the magazine is turned into an app. Imogen ultimately meets incredible young women in tech who help her bridge the generational divide.
Since the novel was published, we have received hundreds of emails from women around the world saying, “I am Imogen Tate.” They tell us that they, too, felt obsolete in the new digital work environment. Some of them went back to school. Some of them dropped out altogether. Many of them, like Imogen, found younger co-workers to help them adapt.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the word mentor is “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.”
It’s time for that definition to be changed.
We now operate in a work force where rank can still be determined by generation but value is determined by skill. At least three generations—boomers, Gen Xers and millennials—are now working side by side. And our mentors? We should all start looking to learn from people who are much younger than we are—five years, ten years, even half our age. Yes. Half our age. Lucy once paid her 11-year old son, Heathcliff, to teach her to turn on her iPad, and I recently recruited my 16-year-old cousin to create my Snap Chat account.
I am supposed to have coffee with Joanna in a couple of weeks. Who knows? Maybe I can teach her a thing or two.