Against the struggles of racism and sexism, ageism may seem a minor concern. But prejudice against older folks is a real issue and one that should be considered in any survey of diversity and inclusion.
I know ageism is real, because I’ve long been ageist. I feel emboldened to admit this because so many of us have been — wittingly or unwittingly. Perhaps still are.
Perhaps, like me, you agreed with Pete Townshend in hoping to die before getting old. Perhaps, like me, you thought he put it succinctly when he suggested older folks stop trying to dig what he and his generation were trying to say.
But perhaps, like me, you’re beginning to regret the error of your ways. After all, time spares no one. Townshend is now 73. I’m closing in on 56. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now (as his fellow Woodstockian Joni Mitchell would put it — literally, as the ex-lead analyst on cloud computing at Gartner) and have turned from a Young Turk into an old fart in the seeming blink of an eye.
If we’re ageist now, it’s because we’re acting as though our inner mental models — i.e., that we’re still 32 — are reflected in the reality we present to the world.
They’re not. Bummer ...
I (we, if you’re guilty like me) need a new script. A new narrative that justifies our place at the table. A new argument that keeps us in the game, something a younger boss would understand. And when I say “we,” I’m thinking of the 41 million people over 55 that are still in the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So what place do older folks have in the new digital terra incognita of 2018? A place they emigrated to (some forced, some by inclination), that resembles the analog acres they grew up in, but which runs on different rules and at different clock speeds. What unique selling proposition do they have that their younger colleagues don’t? What special talents do the follicularly challenged among us possess that our hirsute chums secretly envy?
Turning Age Into an Advantage
In my line of work (i.e., white/no collar, bourgeois, quasi-intellectual, desk-bound, meeting-orientated), I see six key areas where those of a certain age can press home an advantage:
- Writing: More words are written than ever before, but the quality of writing has been strained (with due apologies to a famous writer). Texts and tweets and Bitmoji have seen the well-crafted sentence, let alone the paragraph, let alone the 5,000-word report, wither in the wind. Writing in business still matters, though. Internal communication — of ideas, orders, requests — is the lifeblood of any organization, be it a dinosaur or a startup. External communication — of value propositions, shareholder statements, even the small matter of price discounts — can make or break a company in the public square. I’d suggest offering to take the lead on a writing assignment for your younger boss/colleague – he/she will protest but then secretly breathe a sigh of relief and send an under-the-table IM, “tx bro o u”.
- Tribal knowledge: I was recently at a meeting with a very hot new start-up. After lots of first-class Vulcan mind-melding, the subject of said start-up’s name was raised. Why the resemblance to the product name from a long-established tier one software company, I asked? Blank looks from the start-up CEO. Awkward. Though I’ve never particularly subscribed to the Santayana belief that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it (there being so much history to remember and all ...), there is value to knowing a little of the backstory before you appear on the scene, ready for your close-up. Said start-up CEO literally didn’t know what baggage his company name would carry in the marketplace, a marketplace consisting of buyers who still had scar tissue from dealing with the long-established tier one software company. What the start-up CEO thought was clever and cool, had harmonics of pain and misery for the people who held his fate in their hands. Big mistake. No company or executive needs an in-house historian, but every company and executive needs to know where the bodies/mines are buried, where X marks the spot, and where the river flows fastest. A little of this knowledge, thrown in judiciously, goes a long way.
- Connections: In Digitalia, you may not be in Kansas anymore but you — Professor Greyhair — probably know some folks who live there. Or at least their first cousins. The digital natives around you are calling the shots, but being able to introduce X to Y and A to B, and even X to B, goes a long way in the fog of war. Knowing Johnny who can get the printing done and Abdul who’s been through the permitting process 100 times takes a load off junior and frees up more time for their agile iterating. Or next mindfulness class ...
- Gravitas: Think Alec Guinness in Star Wars. Helen Mirren as ER II. Morgan Freeman in just about anything. You may feel uncomfortable playing up a stereotype, but the reason clichés are popular is because they contain some grain of truth. I’d suggest, cut with that grain, go with the flow. Ham up the wise-old-owl vibe. But balance it with some humility. There’s nothing worse than the old bore at the bar; “You know in my day …” Suss the time and place to be quiet and reserved, holding your counsel. When to channel a little Chauncey Gardner with a gnomic bon mot. When to prick your own bubble with a little ageist self-depreciation — “Oh, don’t listen to an old fool like me ...” In this brave new world, there’s little reverence for age but still an appreciation of intelligence, the human version, it being in such short supply.
- Counsel: Counsel is an underreported and underappreciated niche in the modern corporate jungle. CEO-whisperers are low-profile, but they’re more common than most people imagine. If you can play that role to your boss, a division head, anybody with some clout and a boatload of insecurity, you can lower your own job insecurity. But counseling younger, more senior folks is not easy to do well. Approaching these interactions in a spirit of selflessness and generosity requires great emotional intelligence and a managed ego, which few people possess. If you can pull it off — not just as a booster but as a hitting partner who can help your boss/colleague/friend hone their shots — you can set yourself up a valuable human resource, hard to quantify, but even harder to RIF.
- Encouragement: The human trait most missing in business, IMHO, is something we do without being told for the kids in our life but stop doing without being told for everybody else in our life. That seems a shame. I think — given that you’re now the oldest person in the room — you should start encouraging all the younger people around you in the way you did with your children on the soccer field or your daughter as she scrapped away on the violin. The lack of encouragement that senior people in business experience is another underappreciated oddity. Underlings may frequently agree with their boss — disagreeing being a career-limiting act — but very rarely say, “You’re doing a fabulous job, keep it up!” Boards and shareholders operate on Moore’s Law — “You grew 18% this year. Next year we want 22%.” Providing an encouraging word is something an older person can do at no cost and great benefit. Rent The Intern if you need the instruction manual.
The Bridge Goes Both Ways
Though the center of gravity in many aspects of the Western World has skewed young in recent times — political leaders tend to be younger than in previous generations (e.g., President Macron), the CEOs of the FANG-BAT vendors are in their 30s and 40s, not their 50s and 60s — keeping older voices in the corporate work mix is existentially important. Businesses and societies overly represented by the young prioritize speed and convenience, disruption and breaking things, and downplay caution and small-C conservatism — resulting in actions that with the merest dash of hindsight we can already begin to see are having unintended negative consequences.
But the more, ahem, mature among us also have a responsibility to stay connected and relevant in a world changing faster than ever. It’s easier than ever before to age out of the conversation, lose the ability to contribute, seem uncomfortable with things. Wear short hems when long hems are in …
Vive la difference, after all, is based on the notion of give and take. Digital immigrants should want to assimilate to their new surroundings, while also maximizing their advantages. As has been said, immigration is not just a link to the past; it’s also a bridge to the future. The digital immigrant has a vital role in the future of work as that bridge — a bridge made of differences, contrasts and alloys that make it stronger and more secure for everyone to cross it.