In this high-tech and ever-changing age, it often makes sense for employers to value the flexibility, energy and digital know-how that comes with youth. But discriminating against older applicants isn’t just illegal; it’s also ill-advised. Hospitality heavyweight and Airbnb adviser Chip Conley explores this topic in his book WISDOM @WORK, published by Currency.
Conley used his book to celebrate the “Modern Elder,” a new aspirational model for boomers looking to carve out a space in today’s career landscape, and how they add special value to the digital workforce. Here's a look at why "modern elders" are so critical to today's workplace, and how older employees seeking new opportunities and a way to share their talents and knowledge in a digital environment can do just that.
1. “Modern elders” generally possess higher emotional-intelligence quotients than their younger counterparts — and they should use them to their advantage.
Knowledge of digital processes and advances is an unquestionably important asset for those in the current job market, and it’s understandable for applicants older than Gen X to feel at a disadvantage here, especially in comparison to the younger generations who’ve spent their entire lives with tech at their literal fingertips.
However, employees who’ve been in the workforce for decades often have the ability to build a skill set that can’t be duplicated by their less-experienced cohorts. One example comes in the cultivation of emotional intelligence (EQ). Conley believes that Modern Elders can use their higher EQ levels to offset their comparative lack of digital intelligence (DQ) and provide valuable insight in a work context. In an interview with Fairygodboss, Conley explained it like this:
“Digital intelligence (DQ) is on its way to becoming the top skills corporate recruiters seek, and younger workers, being ‘digital natives,’ have great fluency with not just tech tools, but with where technology is leading us. [In terms of Modern Elders,] I think the ultimate intergenerational trade agreement is EQ for DQ. Studies have consistently shown the longer you've been on this planet, the more you understand humans (including yourself). So, emotional intelligence (EQ) is a skill that Modern Elders can share with their younger co-workers, whether it's how to read the emotions in a room before leading a meeting or how to be more fluent about your own emotions and intuition.”
2. "Modern Elders" understand "invisible productivity" better than their younger counterparts — and they can use that knowledge to combat burn out and provide more value.
A common concern for Modern Elders seeking a foothold in the current professional sphere involves the way in which today’s companies (and industries as a whole) measure success. Conley specifically points out the “more hours = more value” philosophy, in which employers push their subordinates to work for long stretches in order to prove their worth to the company.
“So much of our thinking about productivity is stuck in an industrial-era model," Conley said. "As in, how many widgets can a worker produce in an eight-hour shift, for the least amount of labor cost, without factoring in the positive spillover effects of the 'invisible productivity' that a dollop of wisdom offers the workplace?”
Grueling 10-hour shifts may be possible for a 25-year-old, while candidates twice her age will find that expectation unreasonable and, in many cases, impossible. But Conley argues that “invisible productivity” — which Modern Elders understand more thoroughly than their younger co-workers — contributes more value than pushing for long hours.
“There's a growing amount of academic research showing that diverse teams on all levels — including age diversity — operate more effectively and older members of those teams are particularly effective at both team collaboration and individual counseling with team members that helps make them more happy and productive. So, it's not just about working more hours. It's also about working more wisely,” Conley told Fairygodboss.
3. "Modern Elders" can mentor younger counterparts — and learn from it, too.
In the professional world, “mentorship” is generally considered a one-way street. A senior employee takes a junior worker under her wing, imparting knowledge and wisdom meant to be absorbed by the young acolyte. Conley, on the other hand, advocates for a different model of mentorship, one that provides concrete benefits for both sides.
“Honestly, I think mutual mentorship can be a great way to start a relationship — as in, I'll help you with understanding all the new tech tools, if you'll help me understand how to become a better junior leader in the organization,” Conley advises.
When Modern Elders have the opportunity to offer advice to younger colleagues, Conley recommends a personalized approach: “I've had dozens of Airbnb employees half my age ask if they can have coffee/tea with me to talk about their career path, a challenge they may be having with their boss or one of their direct reports, or a business challenge that needs to fresh wisdom. As the Modern Elder is presented with this opportunity to provide counsel, they should ask themselves: 'How can I best serve this person?'
"The more performance-oriented the inquiry ('I’m not meeting my sales numbers, what can I do differently?'), the shorter the likely duration of your engagement. But, a development-oriented inquiry ('How can I build my emotional intelligence to create a better relationship with all of my direct reports?') will likely be ongoing, so you need to determine whether you have both the skillset and time capacity to take on that relationship. Another way to look at it is to ask yourself, 'Will I primarily be transferring knowledge (performance-oriented), or facilitating awareness (development-oriented)?' Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.”