The Rise Of The Modern Elder

Much has been written in recent years about the growth in the multi-generational workplace that will see millennials, boomers and Gen Xers rubbing shoulders for the first time.  When taken together with workplace trends such as the rise in the gig economy, it’s prompted many to reassess the linear model of life that sees us study > work > retire.  It’s a model that tends to diminish the value of people as they near the end of the work phase, which could see both organizations and society missing out on tremendous wisdom.

It’s an argument made articulately by Airbnb’s Chip Conley in his latest book Wisdom at Work.  He believes we should be seeing the rise of modern ‘elders’ who can impart distinct wisdom, especially in tech-driven workplaces that often favor the young.

Exhibiting wisdom

He suggests that the archetypal modern elder exhibits wisdom in a number of key ways:

  • Good judgement – the inherent experience of older employees can give them a perspective and ‘environmental mastery’ that can allow them to handle problems more productively.  Bumps in the road are inevitable in any process, so it’s invaluable having people who are not only all to aware of this, but who have overcome them in the past.
  • Unvarnished insight – experience affords one a clearness of view that can allow an elder to cut through clutter to focus on what really matters in a situation.  What’s more, because they have been around the block a few times, there is less need to impress or prove themselves, which can lead to greater authenticity.
  • Emotional intelligence – Chip says that knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens, and that modern elders are capable of great self-awareness, empathy and have excellent control of both their own and others emotions.
  • Holistic thinking – the brain naturally loses speed and memory as it ages, but is more able to see holistically.  This ability to ‘recombinate’ from multiple domains has tremendous value in a range of fields, not least in innovation where pattern recognition is key.
  • Stewardship – more and more organizations strive to be good corporate citizens, and Chip argues that elders are able to appreciate their small place in the world and put their experience to good use for future generations.  It’s a desire to give rather than take.

We’ve seen platforms emerge, such as Your Encore, to enable organizations to tap into the wisdom of older employees, but whilst these platforms operate on a gig economy style model, Conley argues for a more fundamental reassessment of age in the workplace, and the value ‘elders’ can bring to the way our organizations function.

With most western societies experiencing a tremendous demographic transition towards an older, greyer society, it’s a shift that cannot come soon enough.