The Society for Human Resource Management reports that there are as many as five different generations represented in today’s workforce, from people born between 1925 and 1942 to those born in the mid-1990s and later. It’s not uncommon for someone at the beginning of their career to work closely in a job alongside someone who is decades into theirs.
Sure, all that time together can create tension — there are countless articles dedicated to generational divides at work. In one survey, older workers reported worrying that they come across as “stubborn” and “grumpy” to colleagues, while younger workers reported worry they come across as “unmotivated” or “irresponsible” to colleagues. But newer research indicates that these differences are actually overblown and based on stereotypes.
Age can be a boundary in getting to know a co-worker on a deeper level, but it doesn’t have to be. Take it from these four pairs of friends, who created bonds with colleagues who are much older or younger than them. Their friendships sustained them through promotions, divorces, retirement and a global pandemic.
Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Kristine Lee, 38, and Stella Segura, 62
Kristine and Stella met when they worked under the same boss at their government job in Fresno, California. They’ve known each other for about a decade. Stella has since retired, but the pair continue to maintain their friendship.
Kristine, on how their work relationship turned into a friendship: Our conversations started turning away from work when I noticed she had the newspaper in front of her and she was circling things. To me, that was so old-school. I was curious as to what she was doing. She was going through the classifieds looking for yard sales. She said it’s something she does pretty regularly; she saves up her change throughout the week, and then she’ll hit yard sales.
I said, “Well, that seems pretty cool.” I never really experienced a yard sale-hopping kind of thing. So she invited me to attend with her. It was a wild adventure, we had so much fun. We did that a couple of times. And then she started inviting me out to wineries.
Stella: The day we were out yard-sale-ing, we stopped into Whole Foods market. And we just start talking to [the woman serving coffee inside the store]. She asked about us because of our age difference. She said, “You guys are kindred spirits.” When she said that to us, I think we both went like, “Whoa.” That defines it. Something a little bit more than, “We like to do this, we like to do that.”
“She broke me out of my shell. I was in my 30s and I needed to get out there. I had gone through a divorce.”
Kristine, on what she’s learned from Stella: I was ridiculously introverted. Having a new friend was a big deal for me. She would introduce me to all these amazing people, and they would vary in age. She is just that kind of person, she’s very open. So she broke me out of my shell. I was in my 30s and I needed to get out there. I had gone through a divorce during that time. It was a whole point of rediscovering myself outside of a marriage.
I wanted to be in her space because she was so sure of herself. I wanted to know who I was. I didn’t really notice anything weird about our friendship until it came up that I actually went to high school with her sons. I was like, “Oh, that kinda makes this weird, I guess.” It was pretty wild and we just had a good laugh about it.
She was able to unintentionally guide me. It wasn’t necessarily like a mother-daughter relationship, it was like, “Wow I could learn so much from this person, who has experienced more life than me.”
Stella, on what she admires about Kristine: Her openness about things. I still feel like I’m learning from her. We both like to sing. We would just sit in the area here by the coffee shop and just sing. People would give us a thumbs up. We were just having fun, sitting out in the open. She would do that.
Kristine, on maintaining their friendship after Stella’s retirement and amid the pandemic: It was hard for me to accept that we were not going to walk out together. It was almost a reality check that we are in different stages of our lives. We saw each other every day [when working]. And COVID messed us up quite a bit. Because she is older, I’ve only seen her a couple a times this past year. We keep up on Facebook, of course, and that kind of thing. But we’re still here, we’re still kicking. She has me print up song lyrics, and I go by and drop them off in a folder by her house.
Michelle Glatt, 37, and Marvette Likier, 50
Michelle and Marvette work together as business technology leaders for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson& Johnson, based in New Jersey. Marvette was originally Michelle’s boss and mentor at Janssen before Michelle transferred to a different group within the company.
Michelle, on when she realized they were friends: When I first told her I was pregnant, we were walking to the cafeteria, and I must’ve been maybe eight weeks and I’m like, “I’m totally late.” And then Marvette’s like, “What, you think you’re pregnant?” So we’re walking, and she would just tell me these random stories of what she experienced, “You might need those lemon drops to curb nausea.” So then it became about all those life experiences.
I would tell her these random fears that I would have after my pregnancy. I was telling Marvette, “Man, after I gave birth, I had a C-section. Are all my organs going to fall out?” Those are the kind of random things that I would share, and she never batted an eye. Giving birth and going through a house-buying process, and all these random things that I would be thinking about that I would just say out loud to Marvette. That’s how all of a sudden, to me, it became, “Yeah, this is my close friend that I would normally share everything with.” Then it became like we have work stuff to gripe about and vent about, but then we also have life things that also put it into perspective.
Half the time I feel Marvette talks me off a ledge, because I was very type A. As much as I’m like, “I’m totally chill now,” I’m still very type A.
Marvette: I tend to be type A too, but I can hide it a little better. Funny thing, the other day, she texts me and says, “Oh my God, I was just on the ledge.” And I just replied back, “Oh so funny, I didn’t see you out there. I was there too.”
Marvette, on what she’s learned from Michelle: Michelle is so much more sentimental than I am. She remembers everything. She remembers birthdays, everything that most emotional people would remember. I always blame myself for growing up with three brothers. I’m the youngest and the only girl, I was desensitized to some things.
“Where I am in my career, I spent a lot of time doing things that probably were not the best use of my energy. Through Michelle, I can share with her some nuggets to help her cut to the chase.”
Even through her pregnancy and this stage of her life, I get the opportunity to relive it, which is always nice. That part is where I can be more emotional and connect that way. And just from a learning perspective, I’ve learned how to coach people even more. Where I am in my career, I spent a lot of time doing things that probably were not the best use of my energy. Through Michelle, I can share with her some nuggets to help her cut to the chase and get to where she needs to be, because she is just super-duper awesome. So being able to learn how to coach somebody and be friends with them and be vulnerable, I’ve learned through my relationship from Michelle.
Michelle, on what she’s learned from Marvette: My parents immigrated to the United States, and as Filipinos, it is a very sheltered, very cultured upbringing. For me, it was always embedded with the mindset, “You do your work good enough and it’s going to be more than enough to showcase why you deserve the next step.” And I brought that along with me for most of my professional career.
After meeting Marvette and working on her team and getting to know her personally, it had become not so much that, “Oh, I don’t have to think about the work” ― obviously you need to deliver in order to show your value — but it’s showing your value, and being present in a different way. It is learning how to advocate for yourself, knowing when to speak up. That is the biggest strength that I’ve learned from Marvette.
Ellie Sternquist, 74, and Tiffany Graston, 40
Ellie, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Tiffany, a licensed clinical social worker, met around 2019 when they were working with active-duty military and their families at a Nevada military installation. They continue to work together after getting new jobs with a private healthcare company.
Tiffany: I initially was drawn to Ellie because she made me laugh. You cracked a joke or something, and we hit it off. And I remember you being the most welcoming, just taking me under your wing.
Ellie: Over years of being a therapist, I’ve learned that humor is a life saver. When we shared that giggle, it was like a bridge was starting to be built. When we started having lunch together, it was clear that we weren’t lunching to talk about work. We started talking about gossip, we started talking about careers, and we started talking about children, and I think we both started talking about ex-husbands.
Tiffany: [Laughs] That was probably the other bridge.
“One of the things that I learned with Tiff was to be accepted without having to go through preliminary proof of competence because I’m an old, invisible lady.”
Ellie, on what she’s learned from Tiffany: I often don’t feel like I’m in my peer circle. I’m still working and almost all of my peers are not, and most of my peers are married, and I am distinctly not. And when I’m with younger people, colleagues, associates, congregants, whatever, I often feel as if I need to be very careful about not presuming that they are judging me or that I am invisible. And I have to balance wanting a little bit of attention to be sure I’m not invisible with also not wanting to be judged for being a cranky old lady.
One of these things that I learned about Tiff pretty quickly is that she was open to bridges, without my having to do much of anything except stay myself. And that she didn’t judge me because I was old, as much as accept me because we had shared things and values in common. That’s one of the things that I learned with Tiff, was to be accepted without having to go through preliminary proof of competence because I’m an old, invisible lady.
Tiffany: Wow, you’re going to make me cry, Ellie. Now what am I going to say to follow that?
[I’ve learned from Ellie] little things, just [by] calling you and asking you a random question all the way to relationship advice. You’ve been through so much, I don’t really see your age, I see more your knowledge. We get along and connect, so it doesn’t really have anything to do with age. That’s not a boundary for us. Friendship knows no boundaries.
Ellie: Her giggles and energy remind me of what’s still silly and goofy in the universe. There’s all of these things that help me to feel like a seed can still sprout out of hope or optimism. Curiously, our friendship has blossomed maybe even more because of the pandemic. Because we have been working from home and turning to each other more. Instead of experiencing isolation, we have experienced hiking [together] and [our friendship] blossoming feels incredibly valuable to me.
Tiffany: It feels like so much has happened in the short amount of time since I met you, like just personally and with the pandemic and the job. A lot has happened. Different losses. I think it made the friendship accelerate. It almost seems like it all kind of flowed or worked out for a reason. I strongly believe that you came into my life for a reason, at that moment, at that time.
Erin Peltzman, 52, and Josh Chave, 33
Erin and Josh became friends while working together as conduct and student support specialists at UC Davis, California.
Josh, on how they met: Even though Erin and I have worked together for seven years, we didn’t really start getting connected until my second or third year. Even though we did the same job, we didn’t ever work on the same team, and then we happened to get put on the same team together.
At that point, I was hosting a pub trivia every week and Erin started coming.
Erin: The part that we ended up on the same team? That really did it. We were next-door neighbors at work, and we’re really left to our own devices. And in between meetings and dealing with students, we would sit in each other’s offices and just talk for what felt like hours. I think at that point, the gates were open and we really got to know each other much differently than any of my other co-workers.
Josh: We had lunch pretty much every day, and then the next year, we got separated and were on different teams, and it kept going. We kept having meals together every day. You kept coming to trivia, we wound up having hangouts at my house, and before we knew it, here we are.
Erin, on their generational differences: I so much appreciate Josh for who he is. And I want him to be in spaces where that’s OK. There are times where he’ll be like, “Was that too much?” And I’ll just laugh, and say, “Yes, and that’s perfect,” or “No, that wasn’t too much and you’re fine.” And I think that’s just with experience. I’m in my 50s, so I don’t even worry about that anymore. But someone in their 30s is still having to worry about, like, ‘Am I appropriate in the workspace or ‘Will my older supervisors take me seriously if I come across as this way?’
Josh: I recognize that when I go into spaces, I worry that I take up too much space, I worry that I’m too loud. I always equated it to the gay thing than the age thing, but I think it’s a bit of both, if I’m being honest. Being able to lean on you in that way, I know that I do it.
“The minute I’ve got my second dose [of the vaccine], I’m getting my nails done and then I’m going to see Josh. Those are the priorities.”
Erin, on how the pandemic has changed their friendship: I love Zoom. I think it’s great that we can do our jobs via Zoom. That part’s great, but I miss Josh.
Josh: We’ve committed to at least one Zoom lunch a week, and obviously we’re texting all the time, and then Slack/Teams/whatever-the-heck-they-want-us-using-that-week, talking over that. My last dose of the vaccine is the 31st. Both of us have been very, very serious about the lockdown.
Erin: The minute I’ve got my second dose [of the vaccine], I’m getting my nails done and then I’m going to see Josh. Those are the priorities.