The real workplace lessons in ‘The Intern’

“The Intern,’’ starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro, offers some lessons in how different generations can work together. Francois Duhamel

The Intern, starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, opened last Friday and took in about $18.2 million at the box office over the weekend.

In the movie, De Niro plays Ben, a widowed septuagenarian who lands an internship (specifically aimed at the silver-haired worker) with a fashion startup company in Brooklyn. He is assigned to work with Jules (Anne Hathaway), the company’s frazzled founder who is overwhelmed by her company’s day-to-day operations and is struggling to balance her work life with her personal life.

Ben finds himself helping the millennial-aged staff with both their work and personal issues, including fixing relationships that sputter out in the digital space. While Jules is at first put off by her intern’s age, she learns to trust him and relies on his counsel as she considers bringing in an outside CEO to help run the company she started.

While the prospect of a 70-year-old intern might seem like nothing more than good fodder for a comedy, author Nigel Dessau says the film’s premise is not completely unrealistic. Dessau is the chief marketing officer at “always-on’’ IT infrastructure firm Stratus Technologies, and he is the creator of the online series “The 3 Minute Mentor.’’

“Increasingly you see executives retire early in their 50s or early 60s, but they’re not ready to put on sandals and walk on the beach,’’ said Dessau. Dessau, who hasn’t seen the movie yet, says the opportunity to help younger entrepreneurs appeals to many retired executives.


“More and more people look to remain involved in business world by mentoring younger people earlier in their career,’’ said Dessau.

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The changing workforce

There’s no shortage of potential mentees as the ranks of millennial workers continue to swell. According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, millennials make up more than one-third (34 percent) of the U.S. workforce. Another 34 percent of the workforce are Gen Xers and another 29 percent are baby boomers.

The Silent Generation, those between the ages of 70 and 87, make up only 2 percent of the workforce. De Niro’s character falls into this category.

And younger professionals, even company leaders, might be wise to seek guidance from elders with a few years of experience behind them.

Businesses with a wide generational range of employees are better-suited to face a variety of challenges says Dessau.

“What makes a business environment successful is diversity of thinking,’’ said Dessau in a phone interview. “Different ages bring in different perspectives and that is critical to running diverse organizations.’’

Key lessons

Dessau says there are three key lessons “The Intern’’ can teach audiences.

First, no one can do everything.

“Learning to delegate and learning to share the workload is one of the most critical behaviors any leader can have,’’ said Dessau. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you’re the boss.

Second, look for coaches and mentors and understand the difference.


“A coach runs up and down the sidelines yelling instructions at you,’’ said Dessau. “But a mentor is someone who helps your brain to be more effective.’’

Third, there is a difference between “urgent’’ and “important.’’

“Urgent always gets in the way of the important,’’ said Dessau. “As a leader you have to focus on the things that are important. So you have to build a team around you that can manage the urgent, so as a group you can focus on the important.’’

Dessau believes looking for workers who will challenge your viewpoints is a benefit, but it’s one that younger business leaders may shy away from in favor of other like-minded peers.

“As a leader it’s fun to surround yourself with people who think like you,’’ said Dessau. “But it’s better to surround yourself with a diverse group.’’

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