Been There, Done That! What Can I Tell You To Help?

Posted on 03 December 2020

Why many organizations have little idea what to do with older people

When you arrive at the point where the end of your working life seems a lot closer than the beginning, it’s natural to ask yourself a number of questions. Unless you have been very fortunate, one of them will probably be, “What have I accomplished in all these years?” Another may well be, “What use am I to the organization I work for?” Then there’s, “Is my organization making the best use of my experience?” Too often, the answer to the last question is “no.”

As a society, we are deeply confused about the economic role of older people. Typically, in any cut-back organizations get rid of them first—those over fifty normally—as a way of saving money. This implies that the experience of older people isn’t economically valuable. Meanwhile, politicians are telling us that we’ll all have to work longer to qualify for pensions—also to save money—without telling us where these extra jobs are going to come from. Maybe one or the other of these policies makes sense, but they can’t both make sense at the same time.

What is the value of experience?

Letting older, more highly-paid people go to save costs doesn’t seem to be very effective in business terms. For example, I see from stories on the Internet that a major US electronics retailer went out of business recently, partly because its management decided to sack older, experienced staff and replace them with younger unqualified salespeople to save money. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t popular with customers. By contrast, a large British ‘do-it-yourself’ chain decided a few years ago to employ mainly older people, including those who had already retired once. That move was very successful, which is also not surprising when you think about it. If you need to paint the external woodwork of your house, would you rather take advice on what to buy from someone with many years of experience of doing it themselves; or from a pimply youth who only knows what is written in the paint catalog.

It’s this question of the value of experience—“wisdom” if you like—which today’s organizations don’t know how to integrate. As a culture, we are obsessed with young entrepreneurs, most of whom crash and burn in a few years. (Anyone remember Fred Wang? I thought not). Other cultures have less difficulty with the idea of older people giving their juniors sage advice: being ‘consultants’ in the original, non-corrupted sense someone who knows more than you do and is willing to share that knowledge.

For example, Nelson Mandela is often called Madiba: an honorific title for someone from the Thembu clan, which translates as ‘the old man’. Mandela’s huge influence today is moral, not executive, derived from recognition of his wisdom and huge experience. Many non-Western cultures honour those with long and deep experience who are expected to transmit that knowledge to the next generation. So mwalimu in kiSwahili literally means “teacher”, but it’s also an honorific title meaning someone of wisdom and practical knowledge. Sensei In Japanese also means “teacher”, but is applied to experts in any field (It’s written with two Chinese characters which mean roughly “the one who has done it before.”)

Does wisdom matter any more?

Of course, not all old people give good advice. The 17th century French wit La Rochefoucauld commented bitingly that: “old people are fond of giving good advice: it consoles them for no longer being able to set a bad example”. But what we’re really concerned with here is the kind of practical wisdom which arises from long experience and long reflection, and which is available to others, but not forced down their throats. Unfortunately, organizations today don’t seem to understand how to make use of older workers in this way; and, perhaps in consequence, older workers don’t seem to know what they should be doing.

Nothing better illustrates this generational misalignment and mismanagement than the current financial crisis. For a start, the senior management in the banks, supposedly older and more experienced, was not doing its job. So long as the money kept rolling in, they failed to provide the guidance or ask the hard questions, both of which were their responsibility. Instead of asking the whiz-kid young traders whether the normal laws of economics had been suspended, and if so why, greed led them to believe in the financial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. and trust their cash to people with little more than energy and theoretical qualifications.

There’s a good argument that organizations which are dominated (if not formally run) by younger people show more herd-like behaviour and unwillingness to challenge orthodoxy; and that’s not surprising when you think about it. At the start of your career, you are ambitious, you want to impress those above you in the hierarchy and you’re mortally afraid of failure. Unfortunately, your actual knowledge is still quite limited. To play safe, you do what everybody else does—only more so. If all the lemmings around you are throwing themselves off the cliff, you try to make sure that senior management notices the height and angle of your dive and the elegance of the splash at the other end.

Lived experience gives you a different perspective on what might happen, now and in the future. Unless you were born before about 1955, the existence of a relatively golden economic age—when growth averaged 4-5%, unemployment was a word in a dictionary and national and world economies were stable and predictable—is something that, at best, you have read about in a book. Most finance industry people and economists, most commentators, and even today most politicians, grew up during the last thirty years of carefree booms followed by an inevitable bust. They assume current economic circumstances are normal. It’s no wonder they’re having such problems trying to find a way out of the present crisis.

This isn’t a plea for the old to run everything. The problems I have mentioned are merely an index of how far organizations have failed to combine the experience of older employees with the energy of youth. If that had been done better, we might not be in the mess we are now; and we would certainly be able to climb out of it more quickly.

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This post was written by:

John Fletcher - who has written 17 posts on Slow Leadership.

John is an Englishman now resident in Europe, with a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. sambit says:

    The young and the old are relevant in the work field due to different values they bring to the work place. While the young bring exuberance and enthusiasm the old undoubtedly score with skill and application. Recently, in case of the Bombay carnage, a group of 8 police personnel with old generation 303 guns could drive out the AK-47 wielding young terrorists from the VT Railway Station without any casualty among them because of their skillful use of the weapon and the space. 5 of them are retiring shortly. I believe a harmonious mix as per age profile is what we should look at the work place. Don’t forget the mentoring that the old workers give to the new recruits in integrating them to the work force.

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