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  • Writer's pictureGunjan Syal

Innovation Across Generations

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

This post is a recap of the TED Circles: Innovation Across Generations discussion held on Sat Jan 30, 2021 10–11am ET. transform this hosted TED Circles are a free, online, safe and inclusive place to connect with innovators from all over the globe.

Discussion Goals

TED Circles' Jan 2021 theme was "Inter-generational learning".

With the rapidly changing world around us, while living remotely, innovating is proving to be a challenge. Let's meet and discuss:

  1. What is enabling your learning during the pandemic era?

  2. As a leader, or a team member, do you explicitly seek ideas from other generations?

  3. What enables collaboration across generations, while working on innovation initiatives?


For additional inspiration, here is a TEDx talk that represents the topic:

Workshop Insights

It was enlightening to host this discussion in the pandemic world, with representation from at least 3 countries and 9 cities. This group not only had all 5 generations at the virtual table, we also benefited from the diverse ethnicity, gender and professional roles.

We began the discussion by reviewing the following poll I had conducted earlier in Jan 2021. The results seem in-conclusive at a first glance. However, as Jenn pointed out, this poll shows the equal importance of career growth, equitable incentive, inclusion and voice in decision across various workplaces. They seem equally relevant to professionals on average.

With continued curiosity, my research revealed the following chart published in Jan 2021. Our tribe had a lot to say about this one:

Heather mentioned that she was taken back by the hardware focus shown for the Millennials. I was reminded that Millennials and Gen-X are the "sandwich generations" - commonly defined by the responsibilities for supporting both their parents and the kids. They are also the most stressed, as they balance personal life with work responsibilities. To me, they may be grasping for any comfort that they can by reaching out hardware/ equipment. However, it does seem surprising that this would be the most top of mind during the pandemic.

Bola mentioned that, we have been using Zoom and other devices to engage with those outside our homes, it seems younger generations have a more relaxed etiquette. For instance, is it ok to lie down while on a call in the class, or is that still considered disrespectful? What is considered ok now during COVID-19 vs. a requirement?

Chris: "Culture drives behavior, behavior forms culture. It's a loop. How influenced are we by times we grew up in?"

Chris' question that followed was quite profound: do generations have different values? Heather mentioned that it perhaps seems this way on surface because, respectively, they seem to be at different stages of life. This was an interesting observation - do we value different things/ experiences as we grow older?

Lisa shared that how are we parented and how tolerant we are with each other may be linked.

Lisa: "It used to be shameful for women to have kids in the background on a call, or bring them up at work... women were worried they would be perceived as distracted and not focused on their work. This is changing."

This message from Lisa is important. The role and place of women in global cultures is changing, albeit relative to the local norms. I shared that I had became accustomed to wearing a blazer and now feel strange meeting professionally without one, because people at offices in-person often assumed that a young-looking, petite female of colour may be an intern. A blazer provided a more "grown up" and serious look for a career consultant female. This also represented in Leah G's TEDx talk above, when she shares that HR had advised her to that wearing shoulder pads at work will help her "fit in more".

Leah G also talks about meeting people in their onlyness. This concept represents the place where we all come together with acceptance in our hearts, instead of judgement. For me, this starts with inclusion and providing everyone a seat in the (virtual) room. Then, as acceptance blossoms, hearing everyone's unique voice.

Erin shared that she is not surprised Gen-Z are attracted to software in the chart above. This is likely due to a pressure to "earn their stripes".

Erin: "Gen-Z are beginning to challenge this (traditional/ earn-the-stripes mindset) a lot more by exploring entrepreneurial paths, almost as though they are rebelling."

The above chart was published by RBC in Nov 2020. It represents the gender and age-group segregated data from Jan - Sep 2020 time frame, for people entering and existing the Canadian job market.

Tori mentioned he is not surprised by the message in this chart, that women are exiting the workplace. It may also depend on single vs married women and it would be interesting to see that ratio

Tori: "Women still bear the burden" (at home).

We agreed that 35-39 are mid-career age groups. I shared that in my network, many Millennial women in this age group had been very focused on career in past and are finding that career growth is stalled during COVID, while pressures at work are higher than ever. Hence, they are choosing this as an opportunity to slow down and take time to focus on family. Many are either choosing to have kids now, or take more time to focus on their existing families, to bring some much needed balance into their lives. Note that this may not be representative of every women in that age group - this is merely a representation of my own friends/ peer group in Canada and US.

Gunjan: "There are serious implications to innovation by not having certain age-groups and genders represented at the workplace now."

Thanks to the pandemic, we are gearing up to develop novel business models and technology solutions. These are rooted in AI, robotics and quantum technologies to name a few. This innovation will happen without representation from these diverse perspectives. It is possible that the solutions created may unintentionally leave out the needs of these groups, ultimately widening the equity and power gaps. This will have serious implications for the society and future generations.

Prasad mentioned that it was surprising to see 45-49 and 50-54 age groups entering the market places, while others are exiting and struggling. This group may frequently battle age-ism and possible discrimination, so it is surprising to see that they are re-entering workforce while other age-groups that traditionally do better, are leaving during the COVID-19 era.

Lisa mentioned that the younger generation's starting salaries are typically same now, compared to when she was starting her career. However, the cost of living and the pressures are incrementally higher. Millennials and Gen-Zs are being forced to look for jobs that pay incrementally more and "make money while they sleep" because otherwise they wont survive.

This reminded me of Chris' point at the start of conversation regarding the values that may be shifting across generations. Concepts like minimalism are picking up steam across younger generations. I shared my own story at the start of my career journey, feeling that I must bring in the abundance of money through a stellar career. Then, marketing campaigns constantly suggesting I buy more. Followed by, the pressure to maintain "the abundance" I owned. All the while, not having time to relax and enjoy the abundance. It wasn't until I explored minimalism that my life found a balance, leading to some drastic changes in lifestyle compared to my parents' generation. Socioeconomic situations may be forcing us to evolve the way we live, along with our values. This is the very cycle that Chris mentioned earlier.

Towards the end of the conversation, we tackled this question:

As a leader, how do you explicitly seek ideas from other generations?

I shared that in the last few years, I have decided to share my own ideas and thoughts more openly, because I felt they needed to be heard, while I may have muted them in past. Jenn shared that as a leader, she is constantly working with multiple generations in her role. She also works with other managers. Leaders tend to inadvertently mute young people on their teams, focusing on "more experienced" team members and explicitly seeking experienced input.

Jenn: "People need to be ok with controversial ideas because that's driving innovation. We need to listen to everyone."

Lisa mentioned that young people are often in fear of speaking out as they may be judged by others.

Lisa: "As leaders, we need the ability to make people be comfortable and make them be heard."

I shared the second poll I had completed, which highlighted challenges with making people feel heard in the remote work world, when everything is a meeting. Rob had mentioned in response to my poll that:

Rob (offline) : "brainstorming is more effective in a face to face meeting with a larger team."

This is an issue our society continues to explore at the moment. And, this is where I personally believe innovation focused on inclusive tech will help bridge perspectives towards an equitable society. As part of the transform this goals and values, I am continuing research in this area. I will continue to share my findings in future workshops.

To close the session, Chris articulated a wonderful summary of the session (using the Star Wars references, which went by waaay too fast for me to jot down! Below is a key portion of it):

Chris: "When we are authentic, we invite others to be authentic and honest. This is where innovation comes from."

Tori shared that open forums and conversations, such as these sessions, help bring people together for open discussions. I have been thankful for a global and diverse tribe, such as this group; to bring together unique perspectives and flourish inclusive innovation.

Wishing you much health and success until we meet again.


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