Embodying the modern elder

Ageism. It’s a subject I’ve tended to hold at arm’s length, for two reasons. First, although I know ageism is a genuine problem in today’s workplace, it fortunately has never affected me directly. Second, since there’s nothing I can do to change my birth date, I feel like there’s nothing I can do about ageism.


To find elder statesmen who are still venerated, you might need to go to Middle Earth. 

But there is something I can do. And it turns out I’ve been doing it all along.

In Age: The Last Socially-Acceptable Bias, author Chip Conley describes returning to the workforce in his mid 50s, saying that “what I lacked in DQ (Digital Intelligence), I made up for in accumulated EQ (Emotional Intelligence).” The experience, he says, turned him into a modern elder.

Long ago, and still today in some communities, the oldest members were venerated. In the mid-twentieth century world that I grew up in, elders in the workplace were handed a gold watch, shown the door, and expected to shuffle off to a rocking chair.

On reading Conley’s article, I instantly embraced the term modern elder because I recognized the need to redefine the status of elders in the workplace, and because I realized that it’s something I already try to embody.

According to Conley, a modern elder is “someone who marries wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to learn from those younger.”

As I pulled Conley’s definition apart, I saw something that I hope others see when they look at me.

Wisdom and experience

Here’s where I really do have an edge on my younger colleagues. After almost 40 years in the working world — and more years than that in the non-working world — I’ve seen, and lived, a lot of things. If nothing else, I’ve gained perspective: I know that, for the most part, good things aren’t nearly as wonderful as people think — and bad things aren’t as dire.

Although I try to avoid falling into the “I’ve seen this before” trap — because every situation involves a unique mix of people, technical issues, and corporate culture — I often recognize situations and problems that resemble things I’ve already seen and already learned from.

I also try to debunk the myth that older workers struggle to keep up with technology. Maybe I’m not a “digital native,” and maybe I text using hunt-and-peck. But I and my generational cohort have a pragmatic approach to technology — meaning that we’ll gladly learn whatever we need to get the job done.

Curiosity and a beginner’s mind

Whatever success I’ve had in my professional life, I credit in large degree to the fact that I always want to learn. I’m always curious. I cultivate  a beginner’s mind..

What’s a beginner’s mind? Think of a time when you first discovered something that would become a favorite pastime or hobby. Think of how eagerly you drank in everything you could about that subject or activity, how you wanted to devote all your time and energy to it. For that matter, think of a time when you fell in love. For a while at least, that person became everything to you.

A beginner’s mind is like that. I hope that I’l have a beginner’s mind, right up to and beyond the day I retire.

A willingness to learn from those younger

I’m confident knowing that I have a lot to offer people who are younger. Yet I know that they have a lot to give me as well, because they’ve lived through different things.

Here’s just one example.

I entered the business world at a time when many people still expected to spend their whole careers with one company and then retire with a fat pension (to go with the gold watch and the rocking chair). True, that illusion was already starting to unravel when I began working. But in at least one company — IBM, where I worked until I was 45 — it remained a huge part of the corporate culture.

People who are now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s can’t imagine having that mindset. Their view of loyalty between company and employee is much more aligned with reality than the one I was indoctrinated with — and it informs their attitudes toward work and career. I can learn a lot from them.

The modern elder in today’s workplace

So there you are. If you’ve worked with me on the job or in a volunteer capacity, I hope that you’ve seen something of Chip Conley’s modern elder in me. It’s an attitude I’ve tried to embody, and I’ll try all the more now that I know what to call it.

What about you? Have you been confronted with ageism? If so, how have you dealt with it? Might you too be positioning yourself as a modern elder?

If you’re a younger reader, what’s your take on the modern elder? Does Conley’s description square with what you want to see in your older colleagues?

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