Yesterday I woke up with a 57-year-old man in my bed and, more painfully, he looked back at me in my bathroom mirror. I may feel 17, but glimpsing my reflection is an unwelcome reminder of reality.
We can distract ourselves from the mirror and “untag” ourselves on Facebook, but society has a way of reminding us of our age. One paradox is that baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) enjoy better health than previous generations, remain vibrant and stay in the workplace longer, but feel less relevant.
They worry — justifiably — that bosses or potential employers may see their experience (and the years that come with it) as a liability rather than an asset.
I felt some of this when I launched a second act in my own career. At 52, having run my own hotel company for 26 years, I joined Airbnb. As head of global hospitality and strategy and an in house-mentor, I was tasked with helping Brian Chesky, the chief executive, and his millennial co-founders grow the home-sharing start-up into a mature hospitality company.
Elders used to have clout, gravitas and power. In a pre-Gutenberg world, in economies that were slow to change, the experience and institutional knowledge of the old remained relevant to the young. Call someone an elder today, and they hear “old, wrinkled, and crotchety”.
It’s time to liberate the term “elder” from the word “elderly”. The latter refers to years lived on the planet. “Elder” refers to what one has done with those years.
Many people age without gaining wisdom. But elders are people who reflect on what they have learnt and incorporate it into the legacy they offer younger generations.
What if there were a new, modern archetype of elderhood, one that was worn as a badge of honour? What if we could tap into our knowhow and know-who to be an asset rather than a liability? Elders have so much to offer those younger than they are, including introductions to those who can cultivate and harvest their skills.
Modern elders could even be the secret ingredient for the businesses of tomorrow.
Some companies are recognising this. Ideo, the design company, in 2013 hired an 89-year-old designer, Barbara Beskind, for projects focused on creating tech products for older people. At Oxford university spinout Animal Dynamics, nearly a quarter of the engineers and consultants are 65 or older, leading to a more relaxed and mature working environment, according to co-founder and chief executive Alex Caccia.
I believe that elders are primed for a comeback, thanks to their ability to synthesise wise solutions that no robot could ever imagine. In an era of artificial intelligence, the wisdom gleaned through life experience is more valuable than ever.
What makes a modern elder? They show wisdom in the following ways:
Good Judgment The more we have seen and experienced, the better we can handle problems. The older we are, the more proficient we may be at “environmental mastery”, or the ability to create or choose environments where we thrive. Modern elders have a long-term perspective based on wisdom gathered over the years.
Unvarnished Insight A modern elder can cut through the clutter to find the core issue that needs attention. And because many elders have ceased to try to impress or prove themselves, there is an unvarnished yet polished authenticity to their observations.
Emotional Intelligence As the saying goes: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.” Modern elders are self-aware, patient empaths who are good at understanding and managing their own emotions, and tuning in to the emotions of others.
Smart thinking Memory and speed decline in middle age. But the ability to connect the dots, to synthesise and get the gist of something, grows into late adulthood. Part of this crystallised intelligence comes from the older brain having the capacity to traverse from one side to the other more adeptly. Psychiatrist Gene Cohen describes this as “moving to all-wheel drive”. And because the elder brain more calmly manages emotions, it can dispassionately recognise patterns more easily.
Stewardship The older you are, the more you recognise your small place on the planet. But the more you also want to put your experience and perspective to work to benefit future generations.
Why does mentoring work?
Pioneering companies are creating new types of mentoring programmes where wisdom can flow in both directions — downhill from old to young and uphill from young to old. In the US, The Hartford insurance company’s reverse mentoring project is so successful that two patents have been written and filed as a result of multigenerational collaboration.
Barclays Bank created a “bolder apprenticeship” programme for workers over 50 who wanted to be retrained in new technologies by younger colleagues.
The writer is author of ‘Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder’
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