By Maryann Kerr
One of the hardest parts of writing a book was knowing when it was done. As something of an information junkie, this was particularly difficult for me. After I’d sent the final, final, final, final manuscript to the editor, another report would be published. Another coin termed. And, as a new author, who struggled to find her voice, new personal learning and unlearning found me rethinking big portions of the book.
As a result, I’m already bugging the publisher about book number two and maybe three. One is on how to live the findings in the Truth & Reconciliation report. I have so very much still to learn and unlearn here. I’ve read the Truth and Reconciliation report, focused my fiction and nonfiction selections over the last year on Indigenous authors, participated in the KAIROS blanket exercise and yet feel I’m a neophyte in this area.
The other is on tackling ageism in the social impact sector. Lisa Taylor, CEO at the Challenge Factory and her team do incredible work on this. Her book, co-authored with Fern Lebo, The Talent Revolution, Longevity and the Future of Work, speaks to the five myths that impede organizational thinking as it relates to the hiring of ‘older’ workers. According to Taylor and Lebo, organizations believe more experienced workers:
- Will demand exorbitant salaries.
- Have an expiry date on performance capacity — in other words — that we become less capable with age.
- Are a waste of professional development investment as they have a shorter “shelf-life” than less experienced/younger workers so there isn’t as great a return on investment.
- Are less productive than younger workers. And,
- It is harder to manage older workers.
I strongly encourage you to read this book and understand the data and research that exposes each of these myths. Not one of these ageist biases is true and Taylor and Lebo have brilliantly debunked each one. I’m going to give you my personal debunk. It is called lived experience.
I will demand an exorbitant salary
As I share in my book, at my peak compensation, working for someone other than myself, my total package was $230,000 annually. To be honest, even I thought it was a little over the top — but who am I to suggest an organization pay me less than they offered? As it happens, in this instance, they thought they’d provided a pair of golden handcuffs. That the compensation meant they had me by the…oh wait I don’t think I can use that phrase in polite company. They thought the compensation meant they could treat me like crap and I’d “take it” in order to keep that precious cash coming in. They didn’t understand, because they didn’t take the time to know me. For me, money was never a big motivator.
At the time, I had young kids and the prospect of university educations ahead. We were a one income family and so, compensation was more important to me then than it is now. But still, not the most important part of any job for me ever. We are now a two-income family and university educations are almost behind us. Our expectation as a family around our children’s ability to take care of themselves is certainly different from our parents. At nineteen I was out on my own and while my parents helped when I ran into difficulties, I was 90 percent self supporting. (My parents might debate that number but they’ve both moved on to heavenly pastures, so you’ll just have to trust me.)
Taylor and Lebo share this key point, “When calculating employee costs, move beyond simple wage comparisons to include calculations for the costs of on-boarding, training, time-to-productivity, replacement, and so forth. Consider the inestimable value of wisdom, experience, and loyalty.”
I’m less capable and productive today than when I was 40
This one really annoys me. I turned 60 this year.
- I wrote a book.
- I run a successful business where I am CEO, chief consultant, marketer, accounts receivable and payable, IT support, and overall creative genius. (Sorry that one was just for me.)
- I’m part of a volunteer team sponsoring a young man from Afghanistan through Northern Lights Canada.
- I’m a member of a collective of seasoned governance experts who wrote a new governance curriculum that will launch in 2022: Good Governance for Good Causes.
- I’m on the founding steering committee for a new nonprofit, the Employee Defense Fund.
- I mentor and coach several women in the social impact sector and of course there are one or two non-work/volunteer activities that make up the ‘other’ part of my life.
- Mom. Partner. Friend. Housecleaner. Laundry matron. Meal planner. Grocery getter. (Thankfully rarely chef.) Dog walker/trainer. Payer of bills.
- I’m a voracious reader, podcast listener and occasional purveyor of LinkedIn posts.
At 40, I worked longer hours and got less done. Experience, a network of associates and deeper knowledge mean I now do more in less time. Don’t get me wrong, I still have lots to learn. With maturity comes the understanding that the more I learn, the more there still is to know. And that no matter how much knowledge we garner, it will only be a minute piece of all there is to know in the world. As Taylor and Lebo write, “Because of their wisdom, experience, judgment, and soft-skill mastery, the productivity of mature workers often exceeds that of younger employees.”
This leads nicely to the next problem older workers face. Employers believe an investment in an older worker’s learning and development is money poorly spent. Guess what? I don’t agree.
I’m a waste of learning and development dollars
When I undertook a master’s in leadership in my early fifties, there was a wide range of ages in the cohort from late twenties to mid-sixties. During one particularly challenging assignment, I asked the professor, is the learning different depending upon what age and stage of life you are in? He smiled. “Of course,” he said, “and that forms the basis of what we think of today as knowledge translation.” What I learned from the same presentation attended by my 35-year-old colleague isn’t better or worse — just different.
In mid-career, I was always very conscious that if I or a member of my team attended any kind of organizationally funded professional development, that knowledge transfer be part of the investment. We would share at staff meetings or do lunch-and-learns. Today, I think there is far greater value in having inter-generational learning occur and shared jointly. It makes for a much richer and more engaging experience.
I’m hard to manage
Well, that may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure — if a I am or if I am not hard to manage — it has nothing to do with my age. I’ve never been a big fan of putting people in boxes. Do you remember David Foot’s Boom, Bust and Echo? It talked about the application of demographics, age, gender identity, relationship status, and income to predict purchasing and program trends. Demographics help to plan how many schools we will need and when. Demographics help to predict the housing market, inform labour trends and the ebbs and flows in manufacturing. However, when we move to psychographics, the use of data to understand what groups of human beings think and believe and the “why” behind their purchasing habits — it gets a bit trickier.
Further, when we use psychographic data to define demographic groups, perhaps we’ve gone too far. A simple Google search of ‘millennial traits in the workforce’ brings up 1.6 million hits. According to the editorial team at Indeed.com:
Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964 have a strong work ethic, and are disciplined and focused. Generation X born 1965-1980 are entrepreneurial, independent and value work-life balance. Generation Y/Millennials born 1981-1994 also value work-life balance, are confident, and tech-savvy. Generation Z born after 1994 are independent, entrepreneurial, and competitive.
Now I want you to think about anyone you know in any of these demographic categories. I was born in 1961, a boomer. If I can choose only three words/phrases from the descriptors above, I choose strong work ethic, value work life-balance, and confident. The person I chose to consider from the Gen Z category is disciplined, focused and highly competitive. You get my point. When we put people in boxes and suggest a person is hard to manage, because they are a more mature worker, it just doesn’t make sense.
We need to manage our teams based on what they need, and in service to them and our missions rather than pre-suppose they will be difficult to manage based on their age. It is ageism pure and simple. And, like many workplace phenomena, ageism is more prevalent for women then it is for men. Taylor and Lebo point to a study by Cook and Rougette 2017 that revealed “institutionalized ageism may be felt more intensely by older women, who face double discrimination: age and gender.”
In the end, like most of the ‘ism’s’ we face in the workplace, this one can best be eradicated through an overhaul of organizational culture. We need to co-create inclusive workplaces where everyone is valued, respected and feels a sense of belonging. And for those looking down the road and wondering, it’s true, the best really is yet to come. #sixtyisfabulous
Maryann Kerr is Chief Happiness Officer, and CEO with the Medalist Group. As a governance, leadership, and culture specialist, she knows successful organizations create and nurture a climate where everyone understands their role; politics are minimal; engagement is high and turnover low. Compassion, kindness, and a deep commitment to collaborative and productive workplaces are core to her work. Her first book Tarnished: Let’s rethink, re-imagine and co-create a new social impact sector was published by Civil Sector Press in 2021.