Marc Freedman and Eunice Lin Nichols -

Apr 21, 2024

What Young Leaders Want – And Don’t Want – from Older Allies

communities gathering and building

In 2022, CoGenerate worked with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to ask a simple question for our supposedly age-divided times: Were younger and older people interested in coming together to co-create a better future for everyone? 

The answer was an overwhelming, and unequivocal, yes. The big surprise: the strongest interest of all was from young people.  

On the one hand, this finding cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom, which sees younger generations rejecting their elders and castigating them for contributing to problems that complicate their lives and future. 

On the other hand, it felt personally true since we both embarked on the work of bridging generational divides as young people collaborating with older generations. Marc started CoGenerate (formerly with the remarkable John Gardner, architect of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, and more than a half-century his senior. Eunice began her career as a 20-something leader in Experience Corps, where she worked side-by-side with remarkable older people on a daily basis. Today, the two of us lead this organization together cogenerationally, bringing our distinct viewpoints, skills, and life experiences to the table. 

Besides the widespread interest in cogeneration, the NORC/University of Chicago study also revealed a major challenge to this way of working: it’s too hard to implement, largely as a result of age segregation. Older and younger people alike called for better opportunities to connect, communicate, and collaborate.  

This finding resonated with us as well. Earlier in our career, many of our older mentors and allies generously shared their power, opportunities, and networks with us. But we also encountered just as many older adults along the way whose (often well-intentioned) comments, attitudes, and actions made it challenging to work together toward the better future both generations wanted. 

For all the insights and answers supplied by the NORC study, its findings left us with a deep hunger to learn more.  

That’s why we are excited to share CoGenerate’s new study, What Young Leaders Want – And Don’t Want – From Older Allies. Released last month, it is the first phase of an in-depth study based on conversations with and among 31 remarkable young changemakers committed to working across generational lines to create a better future for future generations. It’s an unvarnished and honest account, with few punches pulled. A guidepost for all of us, younger or older, wanting to come together to do this essential work.  

The 8 insights in the report include: 

  1. Generational conflict? That is not always the case.
  2. Personal connection before collaboration. Always the case.
  3. No one wants to be dismissed because of their age.
  4. Cash over compliments.
  5. Young leaders aren’t afraid to talk about mental health.
  6. Productive conflict? Digital natives have few models.
  7. “Paying your dues” isn’t working.
  8. The future of leadership is cogenerational.

The report also offers recommendations from young leaders on how their older counterparts can up their cogenerational game, including ways to listen more deeply, embrace humility, and offer real help, among many others. 

Some of the learnings above reflected our experiences working alongside older adults in our 20s, including things we wish we had had the opportunity — and courage — to raise at the time. Others feel unique to this new generation of leaders and are insights we commit to engaging with as we work to be the kind of elders we’ve spent our whole careers supporting. 

The world’s challenges are too big for one generation to solve alone. Neither of us wanted to do this work with just young people when we were in our 20s, and we certainly don’t want to do it with just older people now.  

If these insights pique your interest or resonate with you, we invite you to join us in exploring what it means to be an ally to today’s young people — to unleash the power of the “co” in cogeneration. It’s the only way forward that simultaneously leverages our fundamental human wiring to connect across generations AND the sheer numbers of older and younger people ready and able to be a force for good in the world. 

Marc Freedman and Eunice Lin Nichols are the Co-CEOs of CoGenerate.