Time for a hard fact. We are all getting old or maybe in a positive note, the people we are working with are getting younger! I spoke with a contact of mine who was offered a job at a tech company. Being above 45 years old, he was one of the oldest employees in the company. How’s that for a new joiner!
He was of course flattered and really excited. Through the years that he has been there, the team has expanded and he was asked to work with some of the newbies to show them how to do the “everyday” tasks. We had a good laugh about the potential implication of it but he clarified that it was more of a mentor rather than teaching people how to use the coffee machine. He could share a grown-up understanding that the way forward was to give these up-and-comers every chance to learn and grow.
His situation brought up one thought that the age bias doesn’t get addressed very much. The very people who might be affected by age discrimination often don’t want to bring it up. Let’s face it: Few of us over 40 want to be considered “old” or label ourselves as outsiders within companies. The subject of “older workers” can be a legal minefield for companies to even acknowledge it is to open a Pandora’s box of issues.
We “elders” know perfectly well that our workplaces are by and large not about us. We don’t drive how roles, functions, advancement, and success are seen. Career development options and the hierarchical career ladders everyone is expected to climb are designed for the majority: younger workers.
He has the age awareness and has experience in the tech industry. So the confidence was there. Adapting in the tech industry is key and there’s a lot of attention in the business world today on what’s called diversity and inclusion. It’s the idea that companies need to work harder and more persistently to attract, retain, and recognize diverse talent across the spectrum of gender, race, class, and so on. Not only is it the right thing to do, the thinking goes, but it also enhances business by creating a broader mix of people bringing their energies, styles, creativity, and fresh thinking to the job. And we’ve all seen stories of company culture gone wrong when diversity isn’t prioritized. So how to cope with it?
1. Encourage Socializing
In an era when we’re encouraged to bring our authentic selves to work, after-hours socializing is part of the deal. For older workers (and others who aren’t quite a “culture fit”), tone-deaf get-togethers can cause emotional or logistical havoc. I’ve survived karaoke, rock climbing, and a folkloric overnight ski trip myself. There are good reasons for groups to let off steam and get better acquainted, but please, managers, make sure everyone feels comfortable about socializing in whatever way and at whatever time that you think will be so much fun. Here’s a good guideline: Team social events shouldn’t require physical prowess or alcoholic excess—so forget paintball and bar crawls. Done right, employee socializing leads to understanding between ages, cultures, genders, and all the rest. Done badly, corporate “fun” can lead to disaffected employees—or worse.
2. Career development
As long as you’re still working, professional development shouldn’t stop. In my corporate jobs I’ve noticed that virtually all the skill building the company pays for is geared to people starting out or wanting to climb the ladder. Career help is often tied to what’s called an “up or out” management approach—which means you either have the wherewithal to be promoted steadily up the chain, or out you go. But programs that encourage job rotation such as job shadowing, shifting to another office or partner site work for all kinds of employees, not just younger ones.
3. Mentoring programs
Mentoring and coaching programs are useful tools for professional development. I’m also glad to see technical mentoring programs on the rise, which do the important work of helping young women and people of color get into STEM roles, management training, and other specialties. I’d love to see more widespread mentoring programs where the over-40 crowd can make use of their experience. Even better, let’s help older employees transition into mentoring roles while they’re paid to do it. I know of one position at a large company where a long-time senior executive assistant became the (paid) mentor and advocate for a large group of EAs. Let’s see more of that. I should note the rise of “reverse mentoring”, a valuable way to build relationships and engagement across age groups.
4. Valuing individual contributors
Career tracks often lead to managing people: It’s the main way you make more money and earn bigger titles and more perks. But there are plenty of talented and dedicated people with no desire to get into the people-management business and when you’re older and really skilled at your job, why should you have to? More companies should offer a fully developed, and valued, individual contributor track. Tech companies often give engineers this option, but surely other teams need steady, knowledgeable talent with depth, not breadth. Why must an ace creative director, biz dev, or sales star also have to become a manager to get all the goodies? If success isn’t only defined by achieving manager status, there’s room for more people to excel.
5. Outside learning
It’s not uncommon for companies to offer a professional development allowance that covers some or all of the cost of continuing education where it has direct relevance to your current job. That’s nice, but in the era of soft skills, like creativity and EQ, we should broaden what “relevant” means. It’s not a big stretch to see how, say, an outdoor survival program or improv classes can help workers become more engaged, curious, and nimble. For training that’s farther afield, a flexible spending account to which employees can contribute could be designated for this purpose.
6. Recognition and credit for volunteer activities
Many companies set aside days for volunteering at charities or for team fundraising on runs and walks. These are great ways to build camaraderie while doing a social good, not to mention giving the company reputational luster. Older workers, who often have done years of volunteering on their own, benefit from being valued for their efforts, especially if it counts toward promotions, sabbaticals, and skill building. Consider adding programs where giving back counts for something.
7. Phased retirement
The vast number of us rushing headlong toward 65 calls for more creative ways for us to to eventually disengage from jobs. Companies shouldn’t want all that institutional knowledge to walk out the door all at once. Beyond that, people don’t want to and often can’t retire at one predefined age. We want and need to work; at the same time, we want to have more free and flexible schedules. Companies should devise programs (like these) to adjust workloads and responsibilities so that valuable workers are engaged as long as they’d like to be.
8. Benefits and perks
As companies add more kinds of benefits to attract recruits, HR and compensation experts should consider the whole spectrum of add-ons. Egg freezing and IVF coverage can be wonderful for those who need them; ditto for parental leave for adoptions and support for gender reassignment surgery. How about a few items that are geared to older workers?
Older workers possess deep work experience and expertise as well as extensive institutional knowledge and professional networks. Let’s not let anything go to waste! With that said, we have to recognise that the younger team members also have something to bring. If a company can harness both sides of the coin, just imagine the immense amount of opportunities and growth that it would bring.
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