OFFICE social interaction, now that we’re back to work, is now governed by rules under the seemingly neutral category, “safe workspace.” This bland heading has replaced the more blatant tag of “sexual harassment.” The subject matter throws a wide net to include provision of private rooms for nursing mothers and appropriate language at meetings and social occasions. What used to pass for camaraderie like dirty jokes and inappropriate body contact (like hugging even a party of the same sex) are now circumscribed by strict rules (do not close your eyes and sigh loudly).
In this arena, the generation gap can matter. Same-age (or weeks apart) frivolity of singles in party games (sack races and statue dances) is mostly dismissed as fun and games. Bad optics get into the picture when the pair is at least two generations apart.
The generational gap issue goes beyond the office setting.
When a pair is about the same age, what’s to fuss about? However, if there is a considerable age gap, whether they are of the same sex or not, eyebrows may be raised even in innocent settings. Can two generationally separated individuals (Boomer with a Millennial) really be laughing their heads off at a joke over oysters?
There is a quick rush to judgment that this couple with a generational gap (sometimes more than one) may not be quite a wholesome twosome. She is much too noisy and informal to be a caregiver.
The term “Dirty Old Man” (DOM) is seldom applied to homeless vagrants. It is a social slur referring to a man of advanced age with lewd intentions, usually directed at a much younger person. The big age, and usually wealth, gap between two individuals — even in an innocent activity such as watching the sunset — invites equal measures of revulsion and envy.
When an older man’s attention is solicited via text (Sir, do you want me to squeeze your lemons?) the DOM slur may not apply, as the service on offer is of a bar-tending variety. The old man, this time in lower case, is merely a potential customer that needs his juices spiked. Age difference does not count when the combination is that of a service provider (bar tending) and a cocktail connoisseur of an advanced age.
The age gap in a social setting applies as well to females. In the case of the older female paired with a much younger male (previously the domain of dance instructors, now more apropos to meditation and life coaches — breathe in slowly, Ma’am) the term used is zoological in nature, “cougar.” Here is a feline predator heavily availing of cosmetic treatments. Why a senior female on the prowl is not called a “Dirty Old Woman” or DOW is a mystery not worth solving.
DOM can be viewed as an ageist slur. In the workplace, such a tag denotes that productivity for one so designated is not work-related, implying undue attention to the workers, including student trainees, more than the work.
One can identify organizations that respect age, presumed to embody wisdom and old tricks that new dogs can learn. Just check out how old the CEO is. Those still actively running large companies beyond the mandated retirement age consider “succession plans” and board committees doing searches for these in the same category as earthquake drills. (We are not on an earthquake belt.)
Can the generational-gap model work in business?
Can an old man be advising a young group to give it direction, lend it gravitas, and temporarily lead the organization through a rough patch of financial reversals and eroding market share? This kind of coupling (no pun intended) of wisdom and knowledge in a corporate setting should not invite smirks.
Still, even in an age-hospitable workplace, the supervising adult needs to be unobtrusive and prove his added value only when required. He can skip the parties and out-of-town planning sessions. The beach can be hard to walk on anyway, for weak knees.
As in other May-December pairings, the generations can part ways when the company is back on its feet. The old leader and his young troops take different paths, having learned from each other, and achieving a shared success.
The generation gap, whether social or corporate, can work well… with a harmless and non-threatening demeanor.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda