At a time when innovation is king and digital-native millenials are asserting their dominance in the workplace, some older workers might feel cast aside. But at least one thinker believes there is tremendous value in the acquired experience and wisdom of workers over the age of 40, 50, 60 and even 70.
In 2010, Chip Conley sold the hospitality company he founded back when he was 26. At just over 50, he had plenty that he still wanted to do and say — especially helping what he calls “modern elders” to be productive, integral parts of the digital economy.
His new book, “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder” hits shelves on Sept. 18. He talked to us about recognizing and leveraging the value of older workers.
Not Ready for the Golf Course
An opportunity soon presented itself to join Airbnb, the online marketplace for lodging, as its head of global hospitality and strategy. What he was really supposed to do was serve as a mentor for the then-young company’s executive leadership.
Working with people 20 years younger than himself, he encountered a level of knowledge about technology that was daunting. “Within the first week, I realized I was going to be an intern as much as a mentor,” Conley says.
The key to being a productive older worker is having what he calls “the aging body, the beginner’s mind.” Over the past few years, he’s conducted a modern elder academy that holds retreats in Mexico, with attendees around the average age of 54. These are people who are curious how they can repurpose themselves and “mine their mastery.”
The Harsh Reality of Ageism
Examples of ageism in today’s labor economy are not hard to find. IBM was accused of shedding 20,000 workers over age 40 in America. Facebook and Amazon reportedly imposed age limits on who could see job ads.
In an increasingly tech-heavy economy, the pervasive stereotype is that older people are not as technology savvy, Conley says. This is especially true in some geographies and industries, like the American Silicon Valley.
“In the corporate boardroom and in the upper echelons of large companies, there’s a growing panic that they don’t have enough young digital natives in senior positions to actually help guide the company through what’s a completely evolutionary, revolutionary time in terms of how digital is involved in our business strategy,” he says.
That means baby boomers like himself and Gen Xers can get overlooked. In some startups, even people in their 30s can be perceived as behind the innovation curve. But with more people living into their 90s, Conley says, midlife is now 35 to 75.
Being Constantly Curious
To be relevant in today’s workforce, modern elders need to be constantly curious and never tire of learning new things, Conley says. And organizations need to be smart enough to recognize and embrace the worth of having a blend of ages in their workforces.
There’s a lot of talk these days about DQ, or digital intelligence, and how it’s more relevant in the modern labor market than IQ. But Conley argues for the value of EQ, or emotional intelligence. This ability to understand and control your own emotions and use them to better relate to and empathize with others, is something that tends to increase as we get older.
A lot of young, tech-focused companies have experienced maturity issues, even among their senior leadership. The smartest 20-something CEO of a fast-growing digital business simply hasn’t had the time to build up their EQ, Conley says.
Another reason to have modern elders on a team is diversity. As the business world has increasingly embraced the value of having a workforce that is diversified through gender, race and orientation, the next frontier in diversity is age, he argues.
Modern elders create an “invisible productivity” because they have a better sense of an organization’s overarching mission and are not obsessed with furthering their personal agendas, according to Conley.
“The key lesson for that older worker is that just because you feel somewhat irrelevant based upon what you’ve seen in your own workplace, it doesn’t mean you still don’t have mastery to offer,” he says. “The No. 1 thing you need to focus on is being curious, being open to learning and having just as much interest in learning as you do in dispensing wisdom.”