Ageism is society’s last acceptable “ism” — but there’s cause for optimism.
Older Americans are beginning to rebel against a youth-obsessed culture. They want to be valued and accepted for who they are, embracing “elderhood” as the next chapter after adulthood, and extolling the wisdom and experience that comes with aches and wrinkles.
This Gray Revolution, like many other social movements before it, is being driven by workers. Across the U.S., older employees are prodding their organizations to promote age diversity with the same initiative and interest awarded to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. They are pushing for a place and a purpose within an organization that reflects and respects their skills and expertise — and the most innovative institutions, companies and CEOs will either lead, follow or get out of the way.
One clear sign of an age-appropriate organization is intergenerational cooperation — programs and teams where younger workers learn from elders and vice versa. Achieving this requires defiance of conventional stereotypes: CEOs, directors, managers and HR departments all must trash the false, ageist tropes that older workers are less reliable, less savvy and less flexible, or that they are more expensive and steal jobs from able-bodied youth. It means eliminating job descriptions that skirt age-discrimination laws with profiling language such as “digital native,” “cultural fit” or “five to seven years of experience.”
“It’s absurd that experience has become a liability,” says activist Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”
Meaningful change is slow, but older people have time on their side. Americans are living and working longer, while younger generations tend to be multicultural and pluralistic in their worldview. Many young people also are eager to connect with experienced older mentors. There’s a good chance that future leaders among them will carry these progressive social values into positions of power.
For now, though, it’s still early days. It’s the rare company that includes age in its annual diversity report, for example. “We have a lot of work to do to reclaim the idea of elder wisdom and why we should be valuing what older people bring,” says Marci Alboher, a vice president at Encore.org, a nonprofit that facilitates cross-generational interaction. “We’re stuck in a mindset that people should be exiting the stage in their 50s and 60s. That is just the moment when they could be most valuable.”
Older workers are highly valuable. They bring judgment, balance and perspective to an organization. They tend to stick around longer than their job-hopping, ladder-climbing counterparts. Older employees typically aren’t angling for promotions and view younger co-workers not as threats but as mentoring opportunities. Moreover, research shows that when a company facilitates the exchange of ideas and initiatives across generations, its productivity, profitability and worker morale all improve.
“With the changing nature of the economy to a technology economy, so many things are being displaced,” says gerontologist Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. “The one thing that may be hardest to displace is wisdom.”
Not every older person is a Yoda wannabe, of course. Many of us go to extremes to deny that we are old or will be. Yet denial only weakens our power to combat ageism in others — and in ourselves. That’s one reason why intergenerational initiatives and alliances are so critical: Fostering cooperation between young and old allows knowledge and talent to shine regardless of age.
“To create a culture of cooperation and respect, you have to make sure that older workers have the opportunity to gain new skills and stay current,” says Martha Deevy, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center of Longevity at Stanford University. “Set up environments where the generations are able to share what they know.”
In this way, she adds, “Younger people see how the company is dealing with older people, and older workers are learning new skills, contributing, and able to mentor.”
Such forward-thinking breaks down ageist barriers, which divide not just the workplace but society itself — from the health care we receive to the entertainment and media we consume.
‘We’re all ageist’
After all, aging is the one thing we all share — as well as, for many, the fear of it. Marketers and advertising agencies (where the average age on a creative team is 28) seize on this anxiety with palliative platitudes: “You’re as young as you feel”; “60 is the new 40” and other cringe-worthy clichés aim to sell us potions with the promise that looking and feeling older only happens to other people.
“We’re all ageist,” adds Applewhite. “Prejudice is based on ‘othering.’ The ‘other’ is our older self. The solution is for people of all ages to acknowledge that they are getting older.”
People can overcome their own age bias with greater awareness and employers can do so as well. Start by acknowledging and accepting the older worker with the enthusiasm and encouragement shown to employees whose careers are in front of them. After all, they may be one and the same — nowadays a 55-year-old employee, for example, could easily stay with an organization for another 25 years.
“People arrive at old age healthy and are able to stay healthy, and with health we unleash the potential for older adults to contribute to society,” says geriatrician Laura Fried, director of Columbia University’s Columbia Aging Center. “We’ve never had this before; we don’t yet appreciate what it could offer.”
It’s clear what older people can offer the workplace, but what can the workplace offer them? That’s where organizations will have to think outside the box, because there’s never before been a time where managers are as likely to supervise a 65-year-old as they are a 25-year-old.
“Can we get out of our notion that people are supposed to be working and collaborating only with people of the same age?” says gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave and co-author of “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age.”
“Find common ground,” he adds. “We need to see more of it, show more of it.”
Organizations would do well to provide middle-aged and older employees with purpose as well as a paycheck — chiefly opportunities to coach co-workers and to educate and recreate themselves.
“There is something special about the connection between older and younger people,” the Milken Institute’s Irving observes. “The learning flows both ways. How do we get these ideas in front of people who can actually make a difference? What it takes is leadership. You need leaders to step up.”
Chip Conley, Airbnb’s Strategic Advisor for Hospitality & Leadership and the author of “Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder,” has picked up this mantle. Conley coined the word “mentern” to describe an older person who exhibits both a mentor’s mastery and an intern’s inquisitiveness — a dual role that can add value to a receptive organization.
Gap year at age 50
He thinks big about a future where older workers are encouraged to continually reinvent themselves. “Why not give people the ability to save for their own midlife re-education?” asks Conley, who parlayed his own career experience to found the Modern Elder Academy, a midlife “wisdom school” for people to envision and enact the second half of life.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he adds, “if someone could take a ‘gap year’ at age 50 and know they could go back [to their organization], retrained and reskilled? Same seed, different soil.”
These are the right questions for organizations to ask as populations age. Training and retraining is key to a functioning multigenerational workforce. Shorter work weeks, fresh assignments, flexible schedules and the ability to work from home are crucial as well. These employee perks and more were being implemented even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which likely will only accelerate the trends.
Truly cutting-edge employers that can afford to do so could put these ideas into action. For example, what if organizations allowed employees to set aside a portion of their pretax earnings for midlife or elder learning? What if workers could take a sabbatical for this exploration — a year or even just a few months — knowing their job is safe? Such open-ended opportunities could be exactly what’s needed to nourish an appreciative employee of any age. When it’s time for older workers to leave the staff, they can do so with grace and gratitude, or maybe even stay on as wise counselors.
“We’ve been in this notion of talent being driven by youth,” Dychtwald says. Prior to the 20th century, he adds, “The older you were the wiser you were. People added years to their age. The 20th century was carried away by youth. Where’s the gray?”
The gray army is here, and younger allies increasingly will fight alongside their elders because these workplace changes benefit them, too. Organizations that join the cause to help older employees extend their careers and engage with peers across generations also signal younger staff that they matter. While many employers undoubtedly will balk at these initiatives, one only has to look to the women’s movement, for example, to see the potential for a similar, global shift about the value and ability of older people.
“Early adopters and innovation doesn’t always start in a garage with young people,” Dychtwald says. “Some of the things meant to be accommodating to the older worker are going to create a revolution in work for everyone.”