Mentoring Millennials Across the Generation Gap


Mentoring Millennials Across the Generation Gap


Winter 2019
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In less than a decade, millennials will make up an estimated 75 percent of the workforce. Broadly defined as the generation born between 1980 and 2000, millennials came of age in a society that was stretching its digital limbs. By 2000, the internet was a household staple, and with it came email, instant messaging, and a global ecosystem of interaction. As a result, millennials developed novel communication styles — and today, the professional world is trying to keep up. Communication is the cornerstone of mentorship, and it is critical to navigate these differences effectively to ensure the success of these relationships, says Jennifer Waljee, M.D. (Residencies 2009 and 2011, Fellowship 2012), MPH, associate professor in the Section of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and lead writer of “Mentoring Millennials,” published in April 2018 in JAMA.

Waljee, along with Vineet Chopra, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine; and Sanjay Saint, M.D., MPH, the George Dock Collegiate Professor of Internal Medicine, proffered ways to facilitate and enrich communication between different age groups, and pointed out some common misconceptions about the newest generation of physicians.

What compelled you and your co-authors to investigate mentoring, instead of communication practices in general?

Mentorship and menteeship are the crux of academic medicine and surgery. The relationships that we build in these roles are critical to our professional satisfaction and success, and are one of the most rewarding aspects of academic practice.

You begin the article with an example of a medical student who, while speaking with an older colleague, is busy typing on his phone instead of maintaining eye contact — but for perhaps unexpected reasons. What does this situation illustrate, and why was it important to include?

In recent decades, the ways in which we obtain information and communicate with one another have changed dramatically with the expansion of technology and online resources. The devices we use for these purposes — whether it is a phone, a watch, a tablet, or a laptop — are powerful tools that allow us to quickly communicate with individuals across the globe as well as readily access information to complete a task at hand. However, they may also influence how social cues are perceived, such as eye contact or attention, and our ability to relate to others. When an individual is using these devices, it can appear isolating and distracting in groups. In addition, the etiquette for using these devices varies by situation and is often undefined, leading to frustration in instances where expectations, intentions, and actions are misperceived. The example in the piece was provided to underscore how a device, such as a smartphone, can be a powerful tool to provide new information on a clinical problem, yet may be misconstrued as a distraction.

In the article, the “concern” of older generations is mentioned when discussing millennials’ “values, expectations, and ethos.” Could you expand upon this?

It is incredibly common to hear the phrases “when I was your age” or “in my day,” followed by an example of how an activity or experience was challenging in the past due to differences in available technology or resources. This is usually viewed through the lens that these experiences build character and resilience, and by default the next generation must somehow be less equipped, motivated, or committed given their access to an easier experience. However, it can also easily be argued that many aspects of our lives today are much more challenging compared with prior generations, such as the pace of communication, expansion of social media, and professional expectations. In our piece, we hoped to uncover these misperceptions and spark conversations between mentors and mentees to bridge these common divides.

In medicine, a lot of respect is given to tradition and to established hierarchies. Is there a sense that these institutions might shift as more millennials enter the workforce?

As with many professions and organizations, academic medicine strongly adheres to established norms in how we relate to our patients and colleagues. This is true even in what we wear to work. Consider the white coat, which is traditionally a short coat for more junior trainees, and gets progressively longer as one moves on in their career. Over time, however, we are seeing examples of how the hierarchy is flattening, such as ensuring safety prior to a procedure. In 2008, the World Health Organization published the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist and Implementation Manual, providing explicit guidelines for ensuring the correct patient, procedure, and site prior to surgery. Today in our operating rooms, the “surgical time out” includes an intentional pause to introduce every team member in the room, review the plan of care, and allow an opportunity for each member to raise questions and concerns prior to surgery. This example illustrates how team dynamics are changing in medical care, and reflects a growing culture of inclusion and innovation as key priorities.

What did you and your co-authors seek to accomplish with this piece?

In this thought piece, we wanted to spark conversations among mentors and mentees to allow their relationships to grow. So often, we give up on a potential mentor/mentee relationship when it does not fit our preconceived ideas of how interactions should play out. Although these “failures” can certainly occur for a variety of reasons, it is critical for both mentors and mentees to recognize the perspectives of others and flex or accommodate in order to find synergy. These perspectives are often influenced by past experiences, such as how a mentor was expected to act as a mentee many years prior. As our culture changes and shifts, it is critical that we are able to respond and engage the next generation of academic physicians to ensure a vibrant, diverse, and innovative workforce.  

What surprised you about this work?

This piece clearly struck a chord for many readers, and we received numerous critiques and accolades. It was surprising how loaded the term “millennial” is for so many. The stigma associated with this term often clouds the deeper message that communication and a curiosity to understand why individuals act and react in certain ways is the essence of a successful mentor/mentee relationship.