Don’t retire elders
Today’s progressive youth are uniquely sensitive to slights against agency and identity.
That’s great. They’re teaching us empathy and respect.
But somehow, ageism is an -ism that’s not only permitted, it’s somehow righteous.
Nobody’s getting canceled, shamed or backlashed for hurtful slurs like “geezer.” Or for bashing elders for blocking youngers from management jobs, loading them with federal debt, or ruining their planet.
And it’s open season on older people running the country.
“Young Voters on Biden: ‘He’s Just So Old’,” The Wall Street Journal headlined, quoting college students. Polls show Donald Trump, just three years younger, running nearly even among under-30 voters. Even though Trump threatens everything students care about — and so much more.
I cherish knowing and working with some awesome Zillennials. I also urge their peers who speak for their generations to check their ageism in the coatroom. Not just to be “woke.” Or to honor civil rights statutes that outlaw age discrimination.
It’s that elders are needed more than ever at a place called work. Five reasons:
1. Experience matters
The days when employers retired indispensable talent with a gold Timex and sailed them out to sea on ice floes have long past. As ice floes soon will be.
Many elders can’t code, create killer apps, leverage the cloud, or destroy capital, the climate, and communities with the unrelenting roar of bitcoin mining farms producing worthless SBF FTX cybercurrency.
But most elders have suffered, survived, thrived and roller-coastered decades of epochal change and career slings and arrows. They bring distilled, success- and failure-tested strategic knowledge and insights that employers demand yet struggle to access from their AI talent-recruitment apps.
Covid accelerated the demand for elder experience, like it did for everything else. “In a time of high anxiety, economic turmoil and political division, voters, corporate boards and people of all ages put a premium on stability and attitudes toward work and career paths were redefined virtually overnight,” Washington Post senior editor Marc Fisher offered.
2. We work to live and live to work
Yep, that’s old school. And for too many, unhealthy for themselves and their family lives.
Today’s young collegiate professionals work smarter. They demand work-life balance and enough “me time” to stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally. They balk at being taken for granted. That’s all good.
We elders often felt overworked. Or dissatisfied or unfulfilled. Or unappreciated when employers who signed our paychecks so we could pay the bills failed to fully recognize and harness our talents. Or promote us with enough raises and bonuses.
We also rarely faced a white-collar job market like the current one, with more demand for educated labor than supply so even an entry-level senior manager can call the shots.
We weren’t always pleased with the power imbalance. Heck, famous office manager Dagwood Bumstead in the newspaper comic strip “Blondie,” which debuted in 1930, is still trying to get a raise from company owner Mr. Dithers, who physically assaults Dagwood for asking.
That’s wrong. Today we should all demand better treatment.
But we elders never had HR on speed dial. Or felt entitled to foment a “Great Resignation.” Or moved back with our parents and used their venture capital and real estate to launch an instantly successful social media influencing enterprise. Our media didn’t celebrate “quiet quitting” or “loud quitting” or “acting our wage,” or doing “bare minimum Monday,” or the jargony “calibrated contributing.” We couldn’t afford being fired.
3. We eyeroll “personal branding”
We think it’s a bunch of marketing malarkey. It smells like Fox News ads that try to sucker credulous elders into buying predatory Medicare Advantage plans. It smacks of Generation Me narcissism, a Millennial label most don’t deserve.
We get that Millennials were advised to “lean-in” and “toot your horn.” But we hated picking up the slack from colleagues who were better at self-promotion than doing their jobs, and got the promotions.
Jeff Bezos famously said “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Naturally, marketing “gurus and ninjas” posting constantly on LinkedIn to pump their personal brand twisted what Bezos probably meant.
I sense the Amazon bajillionaire wasn’t talking about “the promotion, education and sustainability of the unique value and purpose that differentiates you from your colleagues and competitors.” This is how one “speaker, author and brand strategist” — a failed former actor who went on to “reinvent” himself — interpreted it.
Nothing wrong with accentuating the positive, as the old song goes. But elders understand that “personal brand” is what people say about your record of work, work ethic, and working with you. Your brand should be about advancing your team and employer. If your brand is about you, then you might be Theranos Elizabeth Holmes.
3. Commencement addresses inspired us.
As an old professional speechwriter, I’ve written a pant-load.
“Be brief, be brilliant, be gone,” President Woodrow Wilson supposedly advised speakers. (But he was a segregationist, so his advice is suspect.)
But this insufferable rite of passage for everyone involved, especially the speechwriter, was to dispatch graduates to a career that was more than about jobs and money — or you — but making the world better.
The late Steve Jobs, who destroyed the world with his iPhone, delivered a famous college commencement address in 2005. His wisdom may not speak to today’s grads who were toddlers then and stare at his iPhone during commencement addresses now. But we elders agreed with what he said.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” Jobs said, “and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Many Boomers — like he was — followed that advice way before he said it. The fortunate like me did find work we love. We hope to keep doing it because, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” (Teddy Roosevelt)
4. We appreciate employers
Recently, a professional recruiter who personally brands as “Preparing those entering the workforce,” posted on LinkedIn, “I advise job seekers NOT to send a thank you note after an interview.”
The recruiter, who boasts she’s a “2023 TEDx Speaker/LinkedIn Learning Instructor,” argued: “Interviewing is a two-way street. Yes, the company is assessing whether you’d be a good fit, but you’re also considering whether you’d be happy working there.”
Her post sparked much backlash. Maybe that was the goal. For the new digital generation, backlash triggers far more engagement than agreement does. That keeps you present and relevant, creates the important digital footprint and pumps your personal brand.
I also understand recruiting abuses, which great recruiters also hate.
But elders don’t play “Who’s the Boss?” It reeks of entitlement and a toxic personality nobody wants to hire, manage or work with.
We send thank-you notes to interviewers because, 1) it’s basic good manners, decent and respectful, which you want in your teams and colleagues; and 2) it’s another chance to engage and perhaps continue the discussion. Do employers really want hires with attitude?
I don’t mean to sound ageist against youth.
It’s that, in this age of diversity, equity and inclusion, let’s appreciate what everyone brings, regardless of years.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.