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Ageism Is Alive And Well

March 13, 2019

Stereotype:

“We need fresh ideas.” “We need a Millennial to address our social media marketing.” “I don’t think Frank is up to the demands of the new software.” “If our salespeople won’t use the automation system, then we’ll get some younger folks in here who will!”

I’ve heard these comments or comments very close to them on more than one occasion. In my opinion, they are sometimes true statements. At other times, they are not necessarily true. The last statement is one to which I am particularly sensitive. Often salespeople who won’t use the salesforce automation system are quite comfortable with technology, software, and automation systems in general. What they are expressing is a reluctance to put all of their customer knowledge and daily activity into a system which can track them or hand off their knowledge to a new person. In other words, they believe that they are protecting their job rather than being afraid to use or learn about new technology.

I recently started thinking about all of this because one of the podcasts I listen to was discussing the impact of GM shutting down their Lordstown manufacturing facility.

Keeping Up

The plant closing will have a huge negative impact on the local economy. So the reporter was interviewing local businesses as well as the employees who will be losing their high-paying jobs. What struck me were the comments from the workers. Some expressed a belief that they couldn’t learn advanced skills.

Several live interviews with workers who were going to be out of work due to the plant closing are quite revealing. One interviewee said, “Yes, I took advantage of the federal program to re-educate myself, but after the first week I quit. I was overwhelmed. On the first day, the instructor said, ‘Let’s get started. Insert the flash drive in your PC.’ And I turned to the person beside me and said, ‘What’s a flash drive?’ “

I am aware that not everyone is going to be able to be retrained to work with intelligent machines. However, the fixed mindset— to use Carol Dweck’s terminology — revealed by the above quotation is very disturbing. Such a mindset plays right into the stereotype of older workers not being able to keep up and add value. Workers of all ages are going to need to be continuously re-inventing themselves.

Experience

Experience is expensive. Not only is it expensive for an individual to acquire, but it is also expensive for an employer to keep or to hire new individuals (young or old or in-between) with the necessary experience. Moreover, for the individual, the experience can be a trap that keeps them from seeing improved ways of doing things or disruptive technologies on the horizon.

Like so many other “isms,” ageism is more a problem of stereotyping than it is deliberate discrimination. We assume that older people are not comfortable with new technology or are not capable of learning how to use new technology. That assumption may well be valid for a particular senior employee. I know from experience, however, that it is not true for every individual.

It’s a fact that my experience is based on a group that is self-selected individuals. My photo club, for example, comprises people both young and old who learn new digital photography techniques, software, and equipment regularly. Professionals in my network are generally life-long learners who read widely, debate where technology is taking us, and start or help to start new businesses.

Continuous Learning

As Carol Dweck pointed out, when things get hard, our fixed mindset tells us to quit, not to bother. That mindset assumes that if we don’t know how to do it now, we won’t ever know. It assumes that our knowledge and skills are fixed. When we are in our growth mindset, we take that hard task as a signal that we have to learn something new, try harder, and practice more.

The mindset we exhibit most (we all have both) is not age related as far as I can tell. Rather, it is an attribute we learn from early childhood. We carry it with us throughout our life unless we consciously work to become a growth-mindset person.

Never “Retire”

Most of the people in my network do not speak of retirement in the usual sense of the word. The concept of not being intellectually engaged is foreign to them. They define retirement as “doing what I want, with whom I want when I want to do it.” They continue to read, debate, volunteer, stay physically fit, and are intellectually engaged.

Our corporations would do well to make sure they do not lose the knowledge and experience that many of our seniors can provide. Moreover, as a senior, I must make sure I stay current — what Daniel Pink called mastery, in his book, Drive.

I love technology. I spent more than three decades snuggled up against the bleeding edge of technology in the semiconductor business. While it has been more than fifteen years since I left the corporate world, I still read about technology, science, software, and the impact of technology on our society.

From what I can tell, I am just as much a digital native as my Millennial colleagues. Moreover, I humbly state that in many cases, I understand more about how the technology works than many of those same Millennial colleagues. It would be a mistake for a client or employer to assume that because I have reached the ripe-old-age of 72, I would not be able to understand or adapt to new technology.

Ageism exists, and that’s too bad. More importantly, penny-wise and pound-foolish leaders may think they can hire a younger and less experienced individual to replace that aging employee. I wonder if they have done the total cost of ownership calculation on that hire. They may change their mind if they do.

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