I’m in my fifties, I have managed teams all my life. I feel my experience has only grown the value I have to offer an organisation. I’m not exactly a luddite, but I haven’t grown up with technology or social media like the tech kids.
And yet companies including my last role seem to be looking to hire younger leaders, and from my experience in applying for new senior positions, if you’re not in your 40s, you’re not going to get a look in.
I’m a long way off retirement, I don’t feel any less energetic or capable than I was, but this whole world of tech and startups seems to want to only employ people under the age of fifty. It looks to me like the only options are within more traditional industries.
Now maybe that’s just life, but if that’s the case, then what do you propose we all do, those four million of us in the workforce between the age of 50 and 75?
Dear Fifty Something,
We’ve created this brand for tech cultures, for startups and scaleups and unicorns, and it’s a bunch of young people. And “corporates” are seeing this brand and they’re following suit, in fear of disruption, hiring younger executives.
I’m forty seven. In my last company, I used to proudly proclaimed how diverse our culture was. We had as many women on the team as men, including our leadership team, our salary balance was tipped slightly in favour of women, which showed therefore no bias at all.
But with the exception of my mother in law, I was the oldest person in a room full of white people. And though I used to make some token effort with new leadership hires to short list a diverse bunch, I didn’t really think a sixty year old would fit the culture either.
So where does that leave us? Do we take a lead from the Vikings and herd ourselves off a cliff in ritual ättestupa for executives over fifty five to lighten the burden on our village startups?
Is this, as you say, just life?
I have two thoughts to share with you, Fifty Something. One my own, one from the brilliant Aubrey Blanche, who heads up Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian.
My own you won’t love. I have this theory which is better explained with the use of my hands, but I’ll try it in words. If you could help please by placing your arms together like the peak of a roof, fingertips touching. So from elbow up to fingertips there’s an apex, and then back down to your second elbow.
Now, from your perspective, looking at your own arms, consider that we’re born at the left elbow, life goes up to the fingertips then down and we die at the right elbow.
On the incline, we’re instinctively driven by learning, by growth, by creation, by accumulation. We hit the peak of all that at some stage (different for each of us, but call it fifty for argument’s sake) and then instinctively on the other side of that we’re driven to protect what we’ve built, to consolidate, maybe to teach.
You know the concept of war-time and peace-time leaders? That some people were good leaders in time of peace, others the type of leader needed in times of war?
In a culture of change, or fast growth, we need leaders instinctively driven by growth and creation, rather than protection and consolidation.
Now that doesn’t mean everyone under fifty is comfortable with change, and everyone over fifty fears change. There are obviously more factors than that, but our natures do lead us more into these camps.
I happen to believe that similarly, on the world stage, we’re in an era where we need female leaders precisely because instinctively women (obviously not ALL women, but on average) are more naturally creators and nurturers, and that’s what this planet and its people need right now.
So in light of that, then companies seeking to change need leaders driven to change.
BUT the wiser Aubrey, in a conversation we had about exactly this, as I sought her advice on changing our almost clichédly young culture, added this concept of mentoring leaders alongside change makers. That we find the right balance through pairing up younger creatives and leaders of change with the wisdom and consideration that comes with more experience.
So where does that leave us now? I guess, Fifty Something, you can at least share this particular viewpoint with current and perspective employers, and that cannot hurt your prospects.
And perhaps if we all start talking about this a little more, like you have and I thank you, then we can start to shift this quite dire C Change trend toward something that keeps us all feeling valued and needed for as long as we would like to keep contributing.
And perhaps, in three years when I hit fifty, I won’t feel the need to book a trip to Norway for anything more desperate than a fjord cruise.