Her Music Career Stalled Out in Her 40s. A Younger Mentor Helped Bring It Back.
Into her 40s, after over a decade establishing herself as an electronic music producer and DJ, Paula Burrows sensed an unwelcome career shift. “You stop getting certain kinds of bookings,” said Burrows, who goes by the name Cozmic Cat. “You’re expected to maybe DJ weddings and bar mitzvahs, but not anything cool.” This ageism was compounded by Burrows’s identity as a queer, Black woman. “I have to work harder than a White dude,” she said. “I have to work harder than a White, 22-year-old woman.”
Burrows had come up in a culture where DJs focused more on making authentic music — and on the hustle — than on a strategic approach to business development. But to combat so many systemic obstacles, that’s exactly what she needed. So Burrows got a mentor. She contacted Canada’s Music Incubator, which runs a mentorship program called the Artist Entrepreneur and uses the digital platform Mentorly to connect creatives with industry experts.
Over two months in 2020, Burrows was mentored by Ryan Warner, 36, CMI’s programs director. He taught her about grant writing, royalties and contract negotiation. Together, they explored Burrows’s personal brand and social media footprint. By the time the world started to reopen in spring of 2021, Burrows had negotiated better terms on two contracts and attracted hundreds more Instagram followers.
“When I was 25, I literally thought I knew everything,” she said. “I had to reach a stage of humility: These are the skills that other people can teach me. I’m open to the wisdom to understand what I’m missing.”
As the pandemic forces a moment of professional reinvention, there’s a growing hunger for mentorship: someone who has already blazed the trail you’re hoping to tread. The relationship doesn’t always look like it once did, with the wizened elder guiding the naive upstart. Today’s mentorship is often intergenerational, with older and experienced professionals assuming the role of student.
It’s hard to know how many organizations formally host such programs, though they exist across the nonprofit world and are offered at corporations such as Deloitte, Cisco and Procter & Gamble. But professionals and creatives alike seem newly open to such relationships.
“More employees are warming up to this idea that it’s okay to be mentored by somebody junior as long as the person has the necessary expertise,” said Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a professor in the College of Management at Metropolitan State University and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota who studies mentorships.
Over the past five years, Chaudhuri has seen intergenerational, or reverse mentorships, grow across industries, from health care to banking to public relations. “When I first floated the idea, critics said reverse mentoring is more of a fad,” Chaudhuri said. “But they were surprised how this intervention has stayed and is thriving.”
Before the pandemic, companies launched intergenerational mentoring programs because they worried that older workers, who were retiring later, lacked digital fluency. They also hoped such programs would attract and retain millennial talent by giving younger workers direct access to senior leadership. Today, the retirement rate is increasing because of the pandemic, but “older” workers — which, yes, increasingly includes millennials — are eager for professional development.
A 2020 survey from AARP found that 77 percent of workers ages 40 to 65 were very or somewhat interested in getting new computer and technology training, and 62 percent said they hoped to improve their professional soft skills.
The shifting diversity and inclusion landscape has bolstered the trend. Chaudhuri says the summer 2020 protests turned many younger workers of color into racial justice educators of their older, White colleagues. They’re also newly mentoring older workers of color who never had diversity and inclusion resources. “Disenfranchisement left a lot of [older] people out of loop and now they’re finding their way back in,” said Miguel Guillén, 62, a Mexican American artist and program manager for the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA).
Artists Up, an equity-driven collaboration between ArtsWA and other partners, offers free Mentorly sessions for artists, including many creatives of color; 43 percent of the program’s mentees are between the ages of 50 and 64.
On the technology side, the pandemic forced many older, experienced employees to seek digital guidance from their younger colleagues. Chaudhuri calls these “mentoring episodes”: short-term, high-quality, often reciprocal interactions. “I’m learning about new statistical tools from many young PhD scholars,” she said. “They are having immediate access to my social network and increasing visibility because of me.”
Older workers say intergenerational mentorship keeps them relevant. “I felt that if I’ll continue to add value to my job and to the organization, I needed to pivot and learn as quickly as possible,” said Peter McManama, 63, senior director of U.S. finance at insurance company John Hancock/Manulife.
In 2019, McManama founded the company’s Cross Generational Learning Program. To expand the program, he partnered with the employee resource group GenerationNEXT, whose focus is professional development. The GenerationNEXT cohort wrote an algorithm to assign mentorship teams based on age and personal interests. Then, teams met biweekly during the pandemic to discuss business and technical skills, as well as networking and personal branding. McManama became more fluent with Microsoft Office. He also developed a newfound respect for his millennial colleagues’ self-confidence.
“I grew up with different learning experiences [than they did], rote memorization in the classroom,” McManama said. “Now I’m embracing their learning experiences.” To him, this means self-learning. “I still have peers who say, ‘Can you do this, can you do that?’ I’m like, sure, but you can do it yourself,” McManama said.
Massimiliano Roveda, who runs the Italian commercial underwriting division at Zurich Insurance, does not consider himself old at 43, but he’s acutely aware of generational differences. “Up to now in my career, I’ve been in an environment that’s quite reserved and based on [hierarchy],” he said. “I struggle to talk to people who are much more senior than me.” But industry norms are evolving and Roveda wanted to stay current. So he joined Zurich’s intergenerational mentoring program. His partner, 27-year-old Suzy Batey, is significantly his junior in the company but has no qualms about calling management with questions or concerns. “How Suzy creates a business relationship with senior people helps me reposition myself and my mind-set,” Roveda said.
In return, Roveda has helped Batey navigate work conflicts. When she and a senior colleague recently butted heads, he talked her through the situation. She agreed that employees of her generation can sometimes get ahead of themselves. “You want to run before you can walk,” she said. “It’s been helpful to learn that you can take your time.”
People in the younger cohort also say they’ve become more aware of their ageism. GenerationNEXT, the professional development group at John Hancock/Manulife, was initially criticized for excluding older workers. The co-leaders say that was never the intention. But they realized there had been unconscious bias. Case in point: Don’t put “millennial” in the title of your professional development events.
But some older professionals are actively looking for a distinctly millennial and Gen Z approach to business. In 2000, after a legal career and raising two children, Susan Crater, now 61, opened a fabric and wallpaper business. She called it Sister Parish, after a successful design firm founded by her grandmother.
For nearly two decades, she sold her textiles only in person. “I didn’t do any marketing. None. Imagine that you’ve never sold yourself outside of visiting a showroom,” she said. “It was really old-school.”
Crater knew she was missing an entire millennial audience — and that if she didn’t capture them, she would start to lose market share.
In 2018, she hired her 27-year-old daughter Eliza Harris as creative director. “We live on the Internet,” Crater said. “Eliza was responsible for that.” Since then, Sister Parish has grown from five employees to 16 and increased its Instagram following to 82,000 from 2,000. This saved the business when all the showrooms shuttered and allowed Crater to capitalize on the home renovation boom during the pandemic. She now believes only an Instagram-fluent shopper could have accomplished this. “Eliza told me that people buy when they’re having a glass of wine at 9 p.m.,” she said.
Buoyed by that success, Crater has actively sought out millennial mentorship. Last year, she signed up for Cirkel, a mentorship matchmaking start-up with an intergenerational bent. Each month, Cirkel pairs users from different generations who are well-positioned to understand the other person’s professional needs and goals. The user base is approximately a third millennials, a third Gen Xers and a third baby boomers. (The company charges a monthly fee of $55 and offers a financial assistance program.)
“We look at it like a gym membership for your career,” said Cirkel’s founder, Charlotte Japp, 30. Growing up, Japp had watched her parents get pushed out of corporate jobs and then struggle to find their way back into the workforce. After college, while working as a junior creative at Vice, she became her parents’ unofficial career coach. “I was giving them intel on social media, tech, trends,” Japp said. “They were mentoring me about office politics and all the things that you don’t learn in college.”
Japp says many Cirkel users have formed long-term relationships, though Crater has used the platform more like a consultant database. The company connected her with a 32-year-old marketer who was an expert at Pinterest algorithms and a 34-year-old sales consultant, who helped her develop performance indicators for a contractor she had hired. A digital producer and stylist, both in their 30s, helped the company throw an innovative online community-building event.
“It didn’t feel like a Zoom event,” said Crater. “It felt like an event in Eliza’s living room.” She added: “I knew a younger person would be more useful. I had an AOL account. I was born in 1959. It’s mind-boggling, what’s changed in how you sell product.”
Crater loves the practical advice she’s received from her younger mentors, and like the corporate mentees, has also been inspired by their confidence and risk-taking. “I was brought up in a more traditional workplace,” she said. “Eliza was brought up to think that you can capture your passion. No one talked about passion when I was in law school.”
Jennifer Miller is an author and journalist whose work appears in The New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Daily Beast among others.
Co-published with the Washington Post.