Why we need to get used to having 70 year-old colleagues

 
Lynda Gratton
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We need to move away from age-related titles. In the future, there'll be nothing to stop a 60 year-old going on a gap year (Source: Getty)

​Take a look around most workplaces and you will see clear signs of “age segmentation” – people within the same age group spend most of their working day with each other.

In part this is because, traditionally, many people’s working lives could be described as the “three-stage life” – full-time education, followed by full-time working and then topped off with full-time retirement. These clear-cut stages inadvertently strengthened the boundaries between age groups.

If you are 20, then you are likely to be at college; in your 30s, then you are probably working full-time; and by 65, you’ll be retired. Those at college mix only within their age group, and those retired within theirs. In fact, a study of the friends and associates of men in a US city showed that, outside their family relationships, the majority spent most of their time with people within five years of their own age.

This age segmentation was reinforced by the age at which people left full-time work. By their mid-50s many people experienced the feeling that they no longer had a place at work.

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Many businesses have helped cement the separation of the young and the old. Corporate support for retirement played an important role in this, as firms tried to free up jobs for more physically able workers. Even job titles reinforce this separation of ages: labels such as “junior” and “senior” are both age-related titles.

There are few advantages of age segmentation, and many disadvantages. When people interact mainly with their own age group they tend to stereotype other ages – they simply don’t see the variety within other age groups and instead use simple concepts to describe them. They also fail to develop the cross-generational friendships that can be such a source of knowledge and support.

But this will change, and it’s likely to change first at work.

Here is why.

A new paradigm

We are all living longer, and when we live longer we inevitably have to work longer – probably into our 70s and even 80s. As working lives extend, the traditional three-stages will seem ridiculously inflexible. What will come in its place will be new stages where people try out new ways of living and working – be that building their own business, exploring, or creating a portfolio of tasks and activities.

Read more: How to manage your elders at work

These new stages will be “age agnostic”. Right now, it’s mainly youngsters who are taking time to explore through their “gap year”. But rapidly, it will be other age groups – the 40-year-old taking time to recuperate, the 50-year-old to learn a new skill, the 60-year-old to travel the world, the 70-year-old to go back to full-time education. Similarly, people of any working age will build their own business, or create a portfolio. As people of many ages engage in the same activity, the benefits of being age agnostic are really felt.

It’s hard to stereotype what a 70-year-old is like when you are travelling with them, exploring the world, or what a 20-year-old is like when you are building a business with them.

This dissolving of stereotyping is all for the good – but there is more. Different ages inevitably have their own unique profile of insight and experience. When they begin to meet each other as equals this knowledge is more likely to flow between them – to the advantage of everyone. Breaking the siloes of age will happen fast – and it will be good for everyone.

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