Next For Me advisor Chip Conley published the following on LinkedIn in response to a Wall Street Journal article “In a Digital Era, How Can Older Workers Stay in the Game? — These strategies help veteran employees stay current and valuable as workplaces become younger and more tech-focused” by Sue Shellenbarger.
The specifics in this well-intentioned Wall Street Journal article about older workers staying relevant in the digital era may be practical, yet the overall spirit of this piece is thoroughly dispiriting. It is wise to actively network, seek new training or certification, and pursue reverse mentorships, but I was exhausted after reading this advice. It seems to be more about how we can add on more hours to compete rather than how we can mine our midlife mastery.
It’s highly unlikely I’d succeed by retraining as a mediocre software developer in my late 50s, but it’s almost certain I can make a difference as an outstanding “soft skills developer” based upon decades of pattern recognition when it comes to human behavior. Rather than piling on dozens of to-do’s to remake yourself into a Millennial-wannabe, why not use your “environmental mastery” (growing skills, like emotional intelligence, that develop as we get older) to locate the right habitats for your wisdom to flourish?
The fact is nearly 40% of us now have a younger boss and, yet, many of these young “leaders” have never received any formal leadership training. Yes, we can learn something from them, but why not pursue mutual mentorship rather than just reverse mentorship? An intergenerational trade agreement – where we exchange our EQ (emotional intelligence) for their DQ (digital intelligence) – benefits both parties. Your boss may get some valuable, informal, unexpected (and free) leadership training from you just when they need it most.
In my HBR article from April 2017, I suggested that a new work role was dawning for those in midlife, that of the “Modern Elder.” As I learned in my role as Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy, and mentor to the CEO, at Airbnb, the most successful companies create a powerful alchemy of brilliant young DQ geniuses mixed with seasoned vets who’ve developed a keen sense of EQ over the decades. These Modern Elders – who are as much mentors as they are interns (“menterns”) – offer more than EQ, leadership and strategic advice. They also come with a Rolodex (how’s that for an old school reference?) filled with other wisdom keepers who can help steer the enterprise beyond just the launch of a new, disruptive technology.
Companies that recognize age as a rich diversity, and wisdom as a valuable resource across generations, will be able to calculate this “invisible productivity” and experience a competitive advantage in a corporate world that resembles, more and more, a tapestry where each of us shares our greatest talents, enriching others and an organization’s success in the process. Procter and Gamble’s successful “Masters” program – an honor bestowed on those in the global company with decades of internal wisdom who can serve as wise beacons for those newer to the organization – is a model for this new kind of intergenerational reciprocity.
What was most grating about this article was the fashion advice by the image consultant toward the end. Donning “tapered trousers,” “tortoiseshell glasses,” and “asymmetrical sweaters” (instead of the dreaded “frumpy cardigan over a dress”) is prescribed as the business attire equivalent of Botox. It’s my experience that Millennials are more interested in our attention than our attire. The number one workplace request that Millennials have is to be in an organization that focuses on giving them the skills to do their best work. So, despite stereotypes suggesting young people wanting to do it their own way, they truly thirst for guidance to develop themselves.
So, how do you hone your ability to find organizations that will appreciate your wisdom?
1. Look for larger companies, that tend to have ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups). And determine if there’s an affiliation group of older employees like MasterCard’s WWAVE group (Workers With Accumulated Value Experience), or Aetna’s BoomERGroup as it signals that the company appreciates it’s experienced employees.
2. Consider companies whose primary customer demographic is in the second half of life. Your “voice of the customer” perspective will likely be more valued there.
3. Do a little online research about companies exhibiting best practices on lists like New York City’s Age Smart Employer Awards program or AARP’s winners. The Conference Board’s Mature Workforce Initiative offers a database of best practices on topics like succession planning for older workers, how to train young line managers to manage long-time employees, and age-friendly approaches to recruiting.
4. Tap into both your friend and LinkedIn networks (if you’re not using LinkedIn, it’s time to tap into this resource) to explore which companies are using intergenerational collaboration to their competitive advantage as, in some cases, these may be start-ups full of Millennials who are thirsting for some grounded perspective and unvarnished insight from a Modern Elder.
In sum, the journalist gives suggestions for how older workers can “stay in the game,” but which playing field are you choosing? We can try dressing like a hipster, learning new lingo, and remaking ourselves into digital immigrants. But isn’t this just trying to compete with the Millennial digital natives in a surface way? Instead, let’s accept on balance that our physical (and maybe fashion) peak is often in our 20s, our financial peak (in terms of salary) is often in our 40s to mid-50s, and, yet, our human peak comes later in life. Society often judges people in the second half of life based on a standard that venerates youthful bodies and high-octane, high-earning careers. But, the true value of a worker in their 50s or 60s is in their humanity; and how they enhance the humanity and human performance of those who surround them. At a time when artificial intelligence is becoming the norm, your humane, intuitive intelligence will stand out.
Psychologist Carl Jung, an expert on the challenges of midlife, captures the question of “playing fields” best: “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
Chip Conley is a New York Times best-selling author and long-time hospitality executive and former CEO whose next book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, is available on pre-order.