The Age-Old Topic of Age

Colleagues and older mentor meet

Look around—the workforce is getting older (myself included). The coveted goal of retiring at age 65 seems out of reach for many workers due to a variety of reasons. This reality is clashing with some key happenings in our industry: cost pressures, company downsizings, process automation/digitization, and evolving technologies requiring new skillsets, to name a few. 

While diversity is top of mind these days, its focus appears slanted toward gender, racial, cultural, and lifestyle equality. In my opinion, we hear and talk less about age diversity. This raises questions around:

  • Does age bias exist in the workplace?
  • Is age a handicap or an advantage?
  • How do we deal with perceptions on aging?
  • What strategies do we need to employ as we age to stay relevant?

I should preface that I haven’t been subjected to age bias in my current or prior roles (thankfully). But I know lots of friends, former colleagues, and other work associates who have experienced this bias. Five years ago I explored opportunities with a few FinTech start-ups, and in those discussions I felt an overtone of age bias (likely when some leaders commented that I graduated from college before most of their workers were born!). These companies may have been the exception; however, it was clear from their questioning that age was top of mind.

A recent article published by Ignites titled, “As Shops Cut Staff, Older Employees May Face Most Pain” suggests age bias does exist within the financial services industry. While I don’t believe this bias is solely in our industry, I have witnessed many baby boomer and Gen X workers being squeezed out of jobs since the financial crisis. It’s hard to pinpoint whether age alone was a leading driver in staff reductions, as higher salary costs and aging skillsets could also be contributing factors.

In my view, I’ll argue age is an advantage, not a handicap. When in need of diagnosing a medical issue, would you prefer the doctor with 20+ years of experience or the up and coming younger doctor with much less experience? If you’re flying on an airplane through severe turbulence, would you prefer the 25+ year experienced pilot at the helm or the newly appointed co-pilot? In these situations, I’ll go with experience. Of course, my preference is based on an assumption that these professionals remain up-to-date in the latest training and techniques.

We need to overcome perceptions that people have their day, peak, and then start to decline. Maybe this is true in professional sports, but not necessarily in our industry. We’ve heard sayings like, “you can’t teach on old dog new tricks,” “young people are just smarter” (thanks Mark Zuckerberg), and “older people are set in their ways.” Let’s encourage more open dialogue on the topic and dispel myths from truths.

In fact, in my purview as an industry consultant, we HAVE to stay on top of the latest technologies, products, and trends. We need to be sharp, motivated, and flexible. And, as older (e.g., experienced) consultants, we must continue to hone our skills, stay relevant, and incorporate lessons learned in our efforts. Age brings experience, and experience brings value.    

How can we stay relevant? A few thoughts come to mind:

  • Embrace new technologies—Stay educated on the latest trends and recognize where ‘there is a better mouse trap.’
  • Collaborate with the younger workforce—Encourage fresh ideas and be open to creative solutions. Resist protecting the status quo just because “that’s how we’ve always done things.”
  • Be active in the change process—Oftentimes committees are set up to explore and discuss the evolving workplace. Be part of the discussion—don’t assume that these conversations are solely left to younger workers.

We’re at a very interesting point in time—millennials challenging the “status quo” workplace, aging baby boomers wanting to remain in the workforce longer, technology and automation threatening to replace workers young and old, and cost pressures forcing companies to re-evaluate high cost employees. These factors together are placing strains on our aging workforce now more than ever. Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly clear that having a diverse team creates better companies. 

Let’s all do our part to ensure age has a seat at the diversity table.