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Surgical Mentors: Confronting Diversity and Generational Change


 

Surgical mentoring – be it at the level of students, residents, junior faculty, or staff – is at a crossroads, and will require growth and transformation in order to avert a crisis, according to expert analysis presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Vascular Surgery.

The workforce as a whole, and medical practice in its wake, are rapidly moving from a generation of baby boomers who have a relatively homogenous worldview with respect to work, family, and society, to a diverse and fundamentally different group comprising generations X, Y, and Z for whom those values seem quaint, unengaging, or simply wrong.

Does this chasm make the experiences of the older generation moot in the eyes of the younger? Does it undercut the likelihood of successful mentoring? Or can mentors adapt to the needs of the newer generations?

It would not matter so much if surgical mentoring weren’t such a critical part of professional development. But surgeons are trained through an apprentice system whereby technical expertise is passed down from one generation to the next, along with the mores and expectations of the particular group culture.

Surgery requires not only profound functional skill, but astute professional judgment. In principle, those with many years of practical experience are the ideal mentors for the neophyte. But complex lifestyle and demographic issues (such as new resident work-hour restrictions, career paths, governmental and societal mandates, and shifting worldviews) are emerging that will create an experiential gap and alter the previous mentor-mentee relationship.

Generational Crossroads

Sarah Sladek provided some perspective on the increasing diversity between mentors and those who will need to be mentored.

Ms. Sladek is the founder of XYZ University, a marketing and consulting company focused on generational change, especially in membership associations. She sees the passing of the torch from the baby boomers (or the "loyalty generation") to the XYZ generations as the greatest challenge surgeons will face in mentoring.

"Demographic shifts are threatening the stability of most of our industries ... because most of our industries, including yours, are dominated by the baby boomer generation. But just 3 years from now (in 2015), generation Y, the youngest generation in the workforce, will outnumber the baby boomer generation."

If a surgical practice does not currently reflect this shift, it will need to. However, the structural accommodations in workday/workweek hours, office hierarchies and protocols, benefits, and time off that were made to the boomer generation are not at all tailored to the widely differing expectations and attitudes of the younger XYZ generations.

She pointed out that even the 3,500 members of the Society for Vascular Surgery reflect the nature of this change: Some 800 of those members are retired, and although 150 new graduates annually become vascular surgeons, 160 are needed to fill available positions. Thus, it is important to determine how to hire, engage, and mentor the new generations.

An understanding and acceptance of these differences will lead to structural changes in the way businesses – including surgical practices, academic centers, and even hospitals – operate, according to Ms. Sladek.

One of the most obvious differences, she pointed out, is the lack of diversity among the baby boomers vs. the considerable diversity in race, ethnicity, culture, and expectations found in generations X, Y, and Z.

Baby boomers, she said, were raised to recapitulate the workforce and lifestyle patterns of the generations before them. In contrast, the new generations expect a level of flexibility, personal gratification, novelty, and personal and social fulfillment in life and work far beyond that of their parents’ generation. Some people blame the children’s television program "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," she said. "All of a sudden, we had a childhood educator telling children, ‘You are special. You are unique. Do what makes you happy.’ And so we saw this move from conformity to individuality, and we also saw a move toward incredible independence, [with their] being the first generation of latchkey children."

Furthermore, she said, the new generations lack a sense of job security: No longer can they expect to get a job after college and stay with the same organization throughout their career. And they are inundated with news, much of it bad, including the fall of politicians and corporations. They have been shaped by greater individuality, suspicion of authority, and a lot more rebellion. The evolution from an era of relatively hands-off parenting to one of extremely hands-on parenting has created XYZ generations with vastly different experiences, sets of expectations, and worldviews, compared with those of their boomer bosses.

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