The Age Game

The following was posted originally as a LinkedIn article on May 2, 2017 at  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/age-game-nina-mohanty

As a twenty-three year old, I have been a victim of ageism. I have been told in no uncertain terms that I am simply “too young to comprehend the gravity and complexity” of a situation or job role. But this isn’t about me. I’m not the victim here.

The real victims here are my elders. You see, we as a Western society seem to have reached a point of drooling infatuation with age… the younger the better. Every day there is yet another slew of articles detailing the twenty-something CEO who has won a spectacular round of funding for his or her start up selling goat milk ice-cream infused with lavender. Remember when it was just Forbes 40 Under 40? That was 1999. Now we’ve sipped the Kool-Aid from the Fountain of Youth and we laud the 30 Under 30. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be one of them. But we put them on a pedestal and marvel at their prodigious minds and incredible business sense… for their age.

So where does that leave the rest of us—the rest of us who aren’t prodigies? The 23 year olds who have strong degrees with employable skills but struggle to justify applying for an entry-level job with a requirement of 3-5 years previous experience? Those of us who are maybe 36 years old and mostly happy where we are thank you very much and just want a fair interest rate; or nearing sixty like my parents, seasoned coders who learned Perl before that young CEO was even a zygote and yet struggle to find work or are casually laid off because they are deemed “less agile”?

It puzzles and frustrates me that those individuals who are older and don’t fit into a category of an “X under X” are overlooked and ignored. And whether you like it or not, we are all getting older. Greater life expectancy means working longer for that 401K payout finish line (or Social Security/Pension fund) and we cannot ignore the fact that most Western populations are currently aging populations. This compels me to share some thoughts.

Firstly, there is a reason we are told to respect our elders. Our elders may not always be right, but as my father incessantly reminds me, “It is better for you to learn from my mistakes than your own.” Being around on this earth for longer means that our elders actually know a thing or two. Sure, my mother is never in screen when I Skype her from London, but I’ll tell you what, the woman can catch software bugs like nobody’s business—she’ll probably spot the ones you never thought to look for and she actually finds it fun, go figure.

Secondly, it is in the interest of those older than us to think long term. I have been fortunate enough to meet many brilliant young people in my short life. Many of these people have start-up dreams. “What kind of business do you want to start?” I often ask.

“I dunno,” they reply, “I’m just going to be an entrepreneur.”

“I dunno” doesn’t cut it when your business model is falling apart. “I dunno” doesn’t feed your bottom line. When your very livelihood is at stake—getting food on the table for the family, paying off a mortgage—you better believe “I dunno” will not suffice. Even if your older colleague seems to be in it for the paycheck, that means he or she needs the company to succeed. Sure, it’s not as sexy as a twinkle in your eye and a fiery passion in your heart, but it means that the work will get done in a way that is best for the company as a whole. You just have to trust that they’re playing the long game. Instant return is great, but sustained growth is even better.

Finally, older employees have a lot to share. Maybe they aren’t so keen to go paintballing while nursing a hangover, but that’s okay. There is truth in the wisdom that comes with age. Pastorally, older employees have a lot to teach us. They can guide us and form our lives and careers for the better, providing an objective outsiders’ perspective. There is a reason mentoring has become such a thing. Mentors (hello, older colleagues) not only teach us, but they act as our champions.

I’m not advocating that we just sack every person under the age of thirty and carry on (mostly because then I really wouldn’t have a job), but I’m saying that companies should start seeing the value of their older employees. Firms must create positive work cultures where there is mutual respect and zero tolerance for ageism, in either direction. And colleagues must learn that just because there is an age gap of twenty years, doesn’t mean that the other doesn’t also sit through the same awful commute each day and sing along to Bohemian Rhapsody in the shower.

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