November 20, 2017; New Yorker
An article by Tad Friend in the New Yorker provocatively entitled “Why Ageism Never Gets Old” revisits the topic of age discrimination in devastating detail. This age-old tradition draws from earlier times when lifespans were shorter, and it’s anchored in “artifacts” that surface older narratives.
Timeless writers are ageists nonpareil. Shakespeare referred to life’s final scenes as “second childishness and mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Philip Larkin, in “The Old Fools,” wrote, “Their looks show that they’re for it: / Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines.” And Philip Roth, in one of his later novels, wrote that “old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”
Even though Friend’s exploration of age discrimination in a romp through literature, essays, and film does provide a rich overview of attitudes elders face in their workplaces, he also tackles the topic from a new perspective: the obsolescence of knowledge among workers. Clearly, dismissing a prospective employee based on her or his age is illegal discrimination, but times have changed so much that the “lifespan” of technical education has shrunk from decades to months, giving, according to Friend, the tradition of excluding senior workers a “renewed vitality.”
This sharp shift in the age of authority derives from increasingly rapid technological change. In the 1920s, an engineer’s “half-life of knowledge”—the time it took for half of his expertise to become obsolete—was 35 years. In the 1960s, it was a decade. Now it’s five years at most, and, for a software engineer, less than three.
Any wonder that employers need to be convinced that older workers have kept pace with developments in their field? It is clearly discrimination when employers don’t address individual credentials, but what about when seniors haven’t kept up or haven’t reflected on their experiences?
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For nonprofits, the technological gap between younger workers and older is manifest every day in tasks like making a spreadsheet to capture data for a data-driven decision or using online communication tools to reach out to a new generation of program participants. The lawyer who can’t analyze a report used to shape a policy decision most likely resorts to a younger coworker to explain what the study means. An administrator who can’t evaluate the performance of a webmaster puts the organization’s treasures at risk, or at least results in exorbitant expenses for unnecessary work.
Most social workers took a course in statistics eons ago in social work school, but who now understands behavioral economics? Who learned game theory well enough to generate scenarios when facing a policy or staff decision? Hopefully, there’s an MBA with an operations research background handy, but more likely the senior staff will have to guess at the optimal answer.
And experienced guesswork could be the senior’s ace in the hole. Several generations ago, this knack might have been called “mother wit” or “institutional history.” Knowing how an organization evolved to its present state could be a fundamental value of experience. (Technologists call this metadata.) But without insights derived from reflection on past events in their social and technological contexts, experience succumbs to nostalgia. Old war stories only accidentally offer insights into today’s battlefield.
So, should age be a protected class for employment? Clearly, callous and insensitive remarks can create a hostile workplace, but years of experience help seniors disregard or make a joke of a slight or two. Being excluded from organizational events that are designed for younger staff (climbing wall outings) aren’t so devastating when one’s career path is less dependent on interpersonal bonding. More serious are barriers to gaining employment or reasonable compensation. The presumption that older workers can’t compete is the violation, but so is the belief among older workers that just being old makes their insights worthwhile.
If, as the New Yorker article proposes, ageism is showing a renewed vitality in today’s organizations, seniors need to develop along two dimensions in order to contribute to organizational success. First, stay current enough in the field to understand the opportunities in today’s organizational technology. Second, reflect on past performance that can be adapted to today’s organizational ecology. Oh, and be ready to deal with the skepticism, eye-rolling, and sly disregard of younger colleagues. They’ll “get it” sooner or later…if senior leaders are successful.—Spencer Wells