It happened again last week at my regular chiropractor appointment. I’ve been suffering from a sciatica flare-up and the back cracking seems to work. My doctor who happens to live across the street from me asked me how much walking I did the day before, given that I was groaning just rolling off the table. When I told him my Fitbit recorded upward of 16,000 steps, he exclaimed, “You sure stay busy for being retired!” Who ever said anything about being retired? But I hear it all the time from family and friends, who murmur in somewhat suppressed amusement about my many hobbies and the ways I find to “stay busy.”
At the same time, my coaching practice is rife with professional women (and some men) around my age who seek coaching on reinventing themselves and transitioning to the next stage of their careers.
As naive as I may be, the rampant ageism that exists – and the multiplicative effect that results when we mix ageism and sexism – surprises me. I thought age equaled experience and wisdom.
What could be the downside of age? My work doesn’t require me to have the figure of my 25 year-old self because that is an aspect of youth I’ll never regain. However, I knew I could still drink and dance with the best of them…if that is required. As for hooking up the technology…there would be people for that as long as I understood 1) what it did; and 2) how that technology would be used to make smarter decisions. I didn’t see how age worked against me.
But naïve I am. A recent search revealed some high profile companies that were hit with age discrimination claims in 2016 including HP, Google, Fox, General Mills and my former employer, The New York Times. Please understand that I am not implying that these companies, did, indeed, discriminate based on age. What is undeniably true is that many people in middle age and older feel under-valued, under-appreciated, under-recognized and under-rewarded for their contributions. And they’re mad as hell and fighting back.
Does my experience equate to wisdom, thus making my age an asset? In his seminal work on emotional intelligence, “What Makes a Leader?” (Harvard Business Review, 1998) Daniel Goleman demonstrated that effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high level of emotional intelligence. Much of the earlier academic work suggested a positive relationship between age and emotional intelligence, (Atkins, P.W.B. and Stough, Con K.K., “Does Emotional Intelligence Change with Age?” Paper presented at the Society for Research in Adult Development, January 2005). In fact, a team of researchers led by U.C. – Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, tracking how emotional strategies and responses change as we age, show results that support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60’s.
Our modern zeitgeist on our conflicts about aging was best captured in the 2015 film The Intern. Seventy-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a retired executive applies to a senior citizen intern program after retirement has become too boring for him. The company he applies to is About the Fit, a fast-growing e-commerce fashion startup, whose founder and CEO, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), had previously agreed to a community outreach program where seniors would intern at the firm. Ben impresses everyone, is hired and goes on to save the day for the CEO and the company.
Ageism at its most sentimental! Why isn’t Ben on the board of About the Fit instead of the beneficiary of a social services program? Throughout the film, his experience and wisdom provide a sane, guiding hand to this successful start-up and this ambitious and conflicted CEO.
No, I am not retired. I have learned a great deal in my years in business and I am willing to share it with the next generation of leaders. I don’t know how to set up the projector and my time is too important – and too expensive – to learn. But what’s going around my social media accounts is Madonna’s speech from the 2016 Billboard Women in Music awards show in which she won Woman of the Year. It was quite a speech, equal parts inspiring and irreverent. But my favorite line was this: “To age is to sin. I think the most controversial thing I have done is to stick around.”
But let’s NOT forget, too, about Tina Turner!
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ― Robert Frost