It’s been said that reinvention is the purest form of hope. But with life expectancies rising by about three years every decade and more than half of babies born in wealthier countries since 2000 expected to reach their 100th birthdays, this idea of creating ourselves anew is no longer just a cushy aspirational goal; it’s fast becoming a necessity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the working world, where employers are already seeing more older workers thanks to an aging baby boomer population.
According to Emma Birchall, head of research at the Future of Work Consortium (FoW), this trend of both living and working longer is upsetting what for generations were three distinct stages in a person’s life – the education stage, the working stage, and the retirement stage.
“If we look back on the last few generations, life was structured around those three stages. People were educated until their early 20s, then worked full-time for one, two, or maybe three organizations during their working life, and then retired around age 60,” Birchall said. “That worked quite well when people lived to be about 75. But what we are finding now is that [this longevity] is disrupting the stages.”
If people continue to retire at 60 but live to be 100, that makes for almost a 1:1 ratio of working life and retired life, she said, which isn’t sustainable financially for most people. As a result, many people are working longer and reinventing themselves professionally several times over, which blurs the lines of these three life stages.
An Old School Hotelier Reinvents Himself
Hotelier, author, and speaker Chip Conley is just the sort. When he decided to sell his Joie de Vivre Hospitality business after 24 years at the helm, he was in an enviable, if unusual, position for someone in his late 40s: He didn’t need to work, but he wasn’t ready to retire. So when, in 2012, Airbnb came calling, and Conley was asked to reinvent himself as a hospitality expert in the digital age, he jumped at the opportunity.
“They approached me and said, ‘We have two of the three legs of our stool. Two of the founders were designers, and one was an engineer, so they had strong backgrounds in design and tech. The leg of the stool that was missing was someone with experience in hospitality,” Conley said. “At that point, they had more than 300 employees at the company, but not one of them had a travel or hotel industry background.”
Even more intriguing to the hotel business vet was the invitation to serve as a mentor to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky. Conley agreed to join the company, on a part-time basis. While he initially thought it would be a one-way street, with him imparting his wisdom on a tech company that knew little about the hospitality industry, Conley quickly realized he was wrong.
“The company was growing fast, and it was clear that there were a lot of things they didn’t know,” he said. “But it also quickly dawned on me that there was a lot I didn’t know. I had never worked for a tech company before and knew very little about what went into building a business that way. When I said yes to the opportunity, I had no idea just how immersive it would be and how much I had to learn.”
But, despite his illustrious career in hotels, reinventing himself in his 50s wasn’t completely seamless. In an essay he penned for the Harvard Business Review, Conley writes about the complexities of being an older worker in a very young industry. The article touches on the anxiety that many older workers experience as they confront not only the need to stay relevant but the fear that they will be stereotyped for their age.
Conley writes that while older workers might feel like a bottle of fine wine – more nuanced thanks to their age – many simultaneously brace themselves to be tossed out of the workplace like an expired carton of milk. They worry – justifiably, he writes – that their younger coworkers and potential employers will see their age not as an asset but as a liability. He writes about being intimidated by the idea of shifting gears – from the founder and face of a major boutique hotel company to a hired hand reporting to a boss who was more than 20 years his junior.
Fear and Anxiety Are Common Among Older Workers
These are all common fears, said Executive Therapeutic Coach Lisa Pepper-Satkin. Pepper-Satkin, a licensed psychotherapist, counsels people of all ages in how to create the personal and professional lives they desire. She says that in her Bay Area practice she sees older workers who are struggling with fear and anxiety about aging in industries like tech, which skew young.
The fear of discrimination isn’t unfounded – in 2016 the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission handled 20,857 cases of alleged age discrimination, which account for 22.8 percent of all of the cases they handled last year. Among older workers surveyed by AARP, 12 percent say they have lost out on a promotion because of their age, and 8 percent say they were laid off or fired because of age discrimination. In that same survey, 19 percent of older works claim they’ve been passed over for jobs because of their age.
Considering 58 percent of those surveyed believe that age discrimination begins when a worker is in their 50s, it’s easy to understand why so much angst exists when older people are searching for work. To that end, Pepper-Satkin counsels her clients that a change of attitude could help when they are actively looking for work.
“Let’s get real,” she said. “There are a lot of people who feel intimidated by youth and vitality. In a world that teaches us from a young age that your professional title denotes your level of success, how do you get your ego out of the way to reinvent yourself professionally, however that looks for you?”
Pepper-Satkin said that the clients she works with who have the most success in this area are those whose mindset isn’t bogged down by societal stereotypes surrounding age.
“I have some clients who say to me, ‘Ageism? What do you mean? I am as qualified as the next candidate, and the length of my experience makes me more valuable than anything’. When people go into an interview with that point of view, their age doesn’t usually get in the way. I counsel my clients that success as an older worker is a mindset. My most successful clients ask themselves which job they want rather than thinking, ‘I’m too old to be here.'”
Pepper-Satkin acknowledges that the breakneck speed of emerging technology can be a real concern for older workers who came of age using different tools. For those who worry that they don’t have the skillset to compete, Pepper-Satkin offers a simple solution.
“I tell my clients to be a sponge – to go out and get the skills they need to stay up to speed,” she said. “I also tell them to talk to younger people and learn from them. Mentoring can go both ways if you are open to it, and it will make you more viable.”
This is the mindset Conley took as he pondered his new role in tech. To succeed, he quickly realized, he needed to change his mindset to be, “an intern publicly and a mentor privately.” He asked a lot of questions in meetings and saved his sage advice for conversations behind closed doors because, he wrote, “no one wants to be criticized in a meeting by someone who sounds like their dad.”
Conley’s professional evolution is emblematic of what researchers believe will most help older workers not only stay in the workforce longer but stay germane – and necessary – to the success of their organizations.
As Birchall substantiates, “When we look at mental and social health, being retired isn’t necessarily a good thing,” she said. “So, the big question that we put to organizations is this: Do people want to retire from your company when they hit 60 or 65, or would they like to work longer but just don’t feel that they have the opportunity?”
Making the Workplace Work for Older Workers
Herein lies the rub, according to Birchall: Just because people need or want to work well into their 70s, doesn’t mean the system is set up to accommodate them. Both companies and employees will have to change their thinking to make it not only possible but desirable for older workers to stay engaged and on the payroll.
Birchall points out that FoW research indicates that thanks to the fast pace of emerging technology, the education most workers receive before entering the workforce – a college degree or graduate school, for example – likely won’t be enough to propel an individual through what could amount to a 50-year career. FoW advocates for companies to allow workers to take time to learn new skills during their careers to stay viable.
Also, Birchall said, employers much recognize that many older and elderly workers won’t be able to keep up the same pace that they did in the earlier stages of their careers. Making adjustments to workspaces to accommodate older workers’ physical needs is one necessity. Another, she said, is to allow workers to ramp down their hours and levels of responsibilities, as needed, with dignity and without penalty.
According to Pepper-Satkin, the final step for older workers to continue to have fulfilling careers is for them to acknowledge their changing role at work and to work on setting their egos aside.
“If you want a job, you have to play the game the way the game is being played,” she said. “But I tell people to hold onto their wisdom and take that with them into the workplace.
Conley, who has since signed on full-time as Airbnb’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy, did just that. He brought years of hotel experience to the table, along with healthy servings of emotional intelligence and leadership skills.
“In return, I’m learning more about digital intelligence, specifically how to create a beautifully designed website and how to launch a business using the Internet. It has turned out to be quite a symbiotic relationship,” he said. “Historically, knowledge has moved from old to young. We are taught that wisdom flows downhill age-wise. But today I think it goes in the opposite direction, as well. For me, it was a crash course in shifting my ego from being the [CEO and face] of my company, to being the ‘CEO Whisperer;’ the acting coach who stands on the sidelines while the actors take the main stage.”
While Conley acknowledges the pervasive idea that power in the workplace is swiftly moving to younger people, he doesn’t believe that only digital natives deserve a place at the table.
“In many ways, younger people aren’t fully baked or ready to assume all the power and responsibility they are given,” he said. “I see myself as a ‘modern elder,’ or someone who helps to foster the accelerated growth of young people who have a lot of responsibility thrown at them. I think it’s great for society to have these kinds of relationships in the workplace.”
Birchall agrees, though she acknowledges that creating this kind of synergetic environment will require careful thought on the part of organizations and workers alike, as more and more life stages emerge. The time has come, she said, to break down the relationship between age and stage.
Perhaps this loosening will itself help break down age-related stereotypes, not just about older workers but all five generations in the workforce today. It’s not hard to imagine the potential of an organization that truly embraces a multigenerational mentorship model; one in which workers of all ages have an appreciation for what the other has to offer.
“This has been an evolution for me,” said Conley. “I had to edit some of my historical identity to fit what the organization needs now. If I had come into Airbnb set on using my old hotel brick-and-mortar thinking, it wouldn’t have worked. There were a lot of things I did know, which I’ve found applicable, but I’ve also learned to be judicious about what my new habitat needs from me.”
“More than anything, I’ve learned that I enjoy seeing people I am working with make progress thanks to my mentoring,” he continued, “I appreciate knowing that by me being [at Airbnb], others are better at what they do and that the company is better off for it.”