The University Record, March 27, 2000

Panel examines differences, similarities among generations

By Jane R. Elgass

About 30 women joined a five-member panel at the Michigan League earlier this month for “An Intergenerational Dialogue: In Celebration of Women’s History Month.”

“This is an opportunity to explore feelings and experiences, built on the premise that there are intergenerational issues in these areas,” explained moderator Susan Johnson, a member of Friends of the League. “If we increase understanding, we can improve communication and be better friends and co-workers.”

Panel members were undergraduate student Caroline Ann Tell; Carolina Wheat, a recent U-M graduate and recruiter for the School of Art and Design; Linda Kennedy, an administrative assistant at the Graduate School and 15-year U-M staff member; Sally Johnson, director of Alternative Dispute Services and a 20-year U-M staff member following several other careers; and Fran Holter, who earned an engineering degree in 1947 and adopted two daughters at age 40.

Susan Johnson, who has two daughters starting their careers, related a recent incident in which she called one daughter at her office at 8:50 a.m. and was surprised to not find her there. The daughter returned the call at 9:20 a.m. and a discussion followed about work-day starting times. The daughter informed her somewhat taken aback mother that she had told the employer “not to hire me if I have to be here at 8.”

Kennedy also was surprised recently, with a generation gap that is shorter than that experienced by Susan Johnson. One of Kennedy’s nieces, in her first job, “up and quit because she didn’t like the job.”

“I was raised to work,” Kennedy said, “and my parents sometimes worked two jobs so we’d have food on the table. I’m beginning to realize I’m older now. It hurt me. My two nieces are in their 20s and I don’t understand them, some of the things they do. You don’t just quit a job. It’s unheard of. I was a temp at the University for a year before I got a permanent job.”

Referring to Susan Johnson’s experience, Wheat noted that in her position, “I can make my own hours and I coordinate them with the schools’ [where she does recruiting work] schedules, although I would prefer 9 a.m. If I get in late, I stay late. That is my work ethic.”

Noting that she was born “during the war we were losing in the Pacific, and you didn’t have to ask which one,” Sally Johnson said the environment in which she was raised encouraged honesty, but at the same time espoused the approach of “If you don’t have anything nice to say . . .”

Also high on her list of important values are thoughtfulness and kindness, “which sort of fell out of favor in the ’80s.”

“I now have some new values,” Johnson added, “probably a product of age. I have an appreciation for the older generation, a greater desire to hear the stories now. And family connectedness is more important to me now than it was earlier in my life.”

Johnson did admit to being resistant to some change, not organizational change, but the little changes that can sometimes drive you nuts, such as the closing of a favorite, conveniently located store or the removal of a mail box from a particular corner.

Holter recalled a phone call from a daughter who is an executive with an international company headquartered on the East Coast, complaining about spending 45 minutes in traffic. The other called one Saturday morning to announce that she was bored.

“I’m traveling and enjoying my daughters,” Holter said, “but I wish they’d learn to cope.”

One of the audience members who is a non-traditional student, returning to pursue a degree after raising a family, got some potentially helpful advice from Tell.

The student was enrolled in an acting class that required a lot of interaction among the students. She was able to talk easily with the male class members, but not with the women. “I was really shocked,” the student said.

Tell indicated that the women students “may have been a bit paranoid” with respect to the boys. “You could have been a maternal figure and that made them self-conscious,” she explained.

The program was sponsored by the Commission for Women, the Friends of the League and the Michigan League.