The global population is ageing at a rate many commentators find alarming. The situation is frequently described as a demographic time bomb. To a great extent, this fear is fuelled by an unwritten assumption that as people age, they become less capable: of learning new skills; of adapting to digital and social media; of keeping pace with an accelerating world.
This stereotyping and discrimination towards people on the basis of age is commonplace enough to have a name: ageism. And unlike other forms of prejudice – such as sexism, or racism – it is often socially accepted and unchallenged. In business, it is frequently ingrained in how decisions are made through a combination of unconscious bias, legislative inadequacy and the portrayal of ageing as a curse rather than an achievement. This bias is also evident in the data we use to frame the “problem” of an ageing population. In Europe, we compare the ratio of people of working age to people over 65 (the figure is currently 3.3. but is forecast to decline to just 2 by 2070, according to the European Commission). But who decided that people should become unwilling or incapable of work once they approach their seventies?
In the context of employment, ageism is exacerbated by the “lump of labour fallacy”: the belief that there is a fixed “lump” of work, for which the old and young compete. Viewed this way, old people have a moral obligation to make way for younger workers, who have families to support and a whole lifetime of dreams yet to fulfil. In fact, the opposite is true: it would be more accurate to characterise older generations as creators of employment. Last year, an HBR study found that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. The study also revealed that the businesses that grew fastest and created the most jobs tended to have older founders. In the authors’ own words: “If you were faced with two entrepreneurs and knew nothing about them besides their age, you would do better, on average, betting on the older one.” The reason for this is relatively simple: it boils down to experience. Business founders with at least three years’ experience in the same narrow field as their startup were 85% more likely to succeed than novice founders.
The lump of labour fallacy encourages the view that older and younger generations are locked in perpetual and unavoidable conflict, despite significant evidence pointing to the contrary. This sense of intergenerational struggle is evident in the plethora of studies and articles concerning how to attract and retain Millennials and Gen Z workers. These younger generations are typically held to be more idealistic, more concerned with ethics and sustainability and more predisposed to work that they consider “meaningful” rather than simply financially worthwhile. But research carried out in 2017 by Management Professor Kelly Pledger Weeks of the University of Memphis found that people of every generation say they value meaningful work. What’s interesting is that the definition of what constitutes “meaningful” work is nuanced and differs by age group: Millennials are attracted to work that benefits others; Gen X is driven by work-life balance; Baby Boomers tend to be more goal-oriented; while Traditionalists place a greater emphasis on work that challenges and grows them as people. What’s great about these divergent generational motivations is that they are complementary and – in combination – hugely desirable from an employer’s perspective. An intergenerational workforce will contain people who are motivated by challenge, by achievement of personal goals and by helping others. Rather than being a source of conflict, these motivational differences make people of different generations great complements for one another.
Crucially, seeing different generations as complements rather than competitors doesn’t require us to pretend that age isn’t important. It’s crazy to say someone in their seventies should be treated exactly the same as someone in their twenties. The solution to ageism isn’t age blindness; this is to confuse treating people as equals with treating people equally. Instead, we can acknowledge age diversity as an important aspect of building a happy, productive and rounded workforce. At the age of 81, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay on how to grow old, in which he suggests our existence – and presumably our working lives – should be like a river. In our youth, we are crashingly energetic, with enough force and passion to carve through rock. But we are also untamed and unpredictable. As we grow older, we may flow more quietly but we acquire a breadth of perspective, experience and wisdom. Organisations that consciously manage and work towards age diversity benefit through this combination of energy and experience.
There are plenty of examples of countries and organisations where age diversity is seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. In Japan, “silver centres” help older people volunteer or find part-time work. In Germany, “multigenerational houses” combine nurseries and elderly care. In South Korea, the average effective retirement age for women is already above 73. The number of FTSE 100 chief executives aged over 60 has doubled in the past 20 years. In the US, companies are introducing “returnships” to coax people who have taken a prolonged period of time off mid-career – most often women but also experienced works in search of a mid-career change. Returnship programmes are paid and usually involve a combination of training and mentorship. They are particularly popular amongst tech companies (typically derided for their lack of age, gender and racial diversity), where participants can receive training in growth areas such as data science, AI and quantum computing. Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
But it’s not just governments and business leaders who need to change their attitude to ageing. We all do – including the aged. In 2017, author Chip Conley published an article on what it felt like to join Airbnb at the age of 52. What’s striking about his account is not how intimidating and challenging it can be to join a company whose product you have never used, where you are twice the age of your boss and speak a completely different language to your new peers – all of these are to be expected – but the extent to which the author believes it was his responsibility to navigate his own way through these issues. This is what’s lost in much of the discourse about how to “deal” with an ageing population – it’s also the responsibility of older generations to avoid the temptation to succumb to the very stereotypes they abhor.
Chip Conley describes in vivid and compelling detail his need to learn how to reconceive bewilderment as curiosity. He had to re-learn how to ask “why”. He also learned to cultivate a reciprocal relationship between himself and his younger colleagues based on their relative strengths and weaknesses – he would exchange his “emotional” intelligence in return for their “digital” intelligence in a form of mutual mentorship. And rather than hide his age, he cultivated the persona of a “Modern Elder” – someone who has the maturity and experience to be both confident and curious, and to function simultaneously as both student and sage. The Modern Elder is an antidote to the stereotypical view of the intolerant, analogue fuddy-duddy. It robs organizations of any excuse not to embrace an age-diverse workforce and it is a model to follow for those of us who refuse to believe we are all eventually doomed to become obsolete. It is an ideal we can all aspire to. This is what much of the commentary around an ageing workforce overlooks: that it’s not just down to employers and legislators to wake up to the benefits of ageing. It is incumbent upon all of us as individuals to understand that creativity and curiosity don’t wane with age and experience.