Most of us have been through it at some point of our lives. The heady 20s are when you feel like conquering the world. Then the 30s set in before you know it; it is still very much the phase when you think you can get somewhere in your career and set your mark upon the world. And then, before you know it, 40s take you by surprise and for that moment frozen in time you realize that unless you are well trenched in a meaningful career, you are not likely to be a prize catch for any corporate entity. And then when you hit the 50s, you have two options. Either you reinvent yourself in a career as an entrepreneurship or retirement. For those who feel they are ready for neither but feel they have still so much left to give and are capable of doing a job better than a millennial, it can be a sorry tale.
Welcome to the world of ageism in the work place. Ageism is alive and well thank you; many of those belonging to the older generation will agree with me when I say that some of them are not ready for retirement even though the years may roll around. They are still connected and able to give a considerable amount of their time and energy but unfortunately, not everyone agrees.
A few days ago, a story broke on line about an Apple engineer who managed some of the company’s breakthrough tech processes but who felt bored with retirement. He was just 54, but on applying to Genius Bar, Apple’s retail tech support, he found they were not willing to take him on. Turns out he was as twice as old as some of Genius Bar’s other applicants. A pity since he would have been able to share his experience and skills with customers so well. The media was pointing the finger at millennials and younger managers who felt at 54, the Apple tech expert was well, too old in their eyes. That’s something we have all lived through; when we are young, we falsely believe that old age is far away, too far to make a dent in our way of life.
It seems that tech is so age driven – in a world where tech guys start out at 18 and face burn out by 30, ageism is alive and well more than in other industries. As the world keeps getting used to more and more tech-related services, it is assumed that everyone would benefit from the pioneering expertise of older tech experts. But it seems not so.
The hit comedy ‘The Intern’ starring Robert de Niro as the senior intern working for a start up e-commerce venture run by a female entrepreneur, played by Anne Hathaway, highlights not just ageism in the work place but the values the older generations possessed in relation to work ethics. In a brilliant take as only de Niro could do, his character Ben mentors not just the founder but also the younger employees who could learn a thing or do about older but still relevant values.
How do we get about it?
So now that we know age can work against you in the work place irrespective of gender, how do we get about it? Especially when those who sit on deciding these matters are much younger than those facing them. Ideally, the merits should not be on age – Sri Lanka has an ageing population and we all know that today’s young will also fall into that category down the line – but on what the individual can do and is still very much in possession of a relevant set of skills. In contrast, there are younger employees who yearn to get out and start on their own or get into early retirement. So we do realize that it has nothing to do with age as a factor alone – more to do with individual and specific conditions such as efficiency, experience, capacity, commitment, effort, etc.
Older employees are also capable of giving their expertise and experience to many ventures such as start-ups, which maybe outside a regular job focus but still applicable and extremely satisfying. As committed as the young maybe to start up ventures, what is regularly missing from their list is experience. The older generation has plenty of advice that would benefit and uplift any start-up venture, adding tremendous value and weight to the business.
Unfortunately, in a world obsessed with youth, ageism is indeed a fact that needs to alter. Changes in lifestyles, engaging in exercise, consuming healthier meals and medical innovations has resulted in a healthier, more active and more alert older generation. Those in their 50s and 60s and even 70s are in better shape than ever before – although lifestyle modifications can make them even better. Their life expectancy is also enhanced which means that they have more years and more time to be actively engaged in worthy pursuits.
The twilight years are no longer literally so – in fact, that age group is found to have more resources and time for bigger, better and innovative pursuits than the others. It is also critical for them to think young not old – they say you are as old as you think you are. There are professions after all, in which the older generation can continue to practice such as medicine and law. The ones who have chosen to do so do quite well.
In the end, as the world keeps getting smarter with incredible inputs from technology, ageism too will adapt. There will be options and possibilities that will expand the horizons for the young and for the old. Until then, let’s try to deal with ageism as best as we can – by making productive use of the older generation so that they can continue to be a vital part of society rather than being regarded as has-beens.
(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at email@example.com)