Money Magazine contributing writer Dan Kadlec has cast a few lights on issues which elders will find challenging. In the April 28, 2010 edition of the magazine he examines the problems faced by older workers in dealing with, amongst other things, changing technology, dress styles and communications. While Elders, who are engaged in the affairs of the world for its own good and survival, might choose not to regard themselves in quite the same way as seniors caught in the daily grind of salaried existence, there are numerous items explored by Kadlec which Elders would do well to heed if they really want to make progress in the world.

First off he notes that while many companies may value older workers for their institutional knowledge, industry expertise and/or mentoring capacity, the latter cannot rest on those laurels in a rapidly changing workplace. Young people are putting their stamp on the workplace and the world with new technologies and work styles. The changes are every bit as intractable as when boomers came up with innovations like five-day work weeks.

What changes? For starters, how many Elders are into Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? What the hell is that, they ask? Social media are not just trendy, they're an integral part of a cultural shift. Increasingly communications and internet tools are being used to do business and to generate revenue. Kadlec quotes workplace researchers who note that a senior worker who doesn't learn social networking is like an aging person who never turns on the TV. The Pew Research Center has measured (in the U.S.A.) the incidence of profiles on social-media sites amongst present-day younger workers at about 75%. Amongst ageing boomers the incidence is only 30%. The point of these new media is to enable one to see who and what are making news in the world. The youngsters are identifying and following thought leaders in their fields. Most of them get into the circuit by identifying a few people they respect in their profession and then seeing who they are following. By reading their comments, they stay current, and by repeating, or recasting, what they have learned they can maintain an edge on issues. Should it be any different for connected Elders?

Baby boomers who make up a significant portion of the Elder population came of age in a time when bosses frequently gathered staff for updates and marching orders. For a generation that logged long hours and blurred the line between work and life, those meetings also served as a social outlet. Jack Welch, one-time chairman of General Electric and now famous as a role model for organizational efficiency, used to make his junior managers come to meetings on Saturdays and would then spend the time in regaling them with tales of his football prowess. Today younger folks aren't biting. As Kadlec says, the philosophy is now get the job done and get a life. They have new tools to help them work more efficiently. They never knew life without computers or cellphones. They use texting, web-based conferences, email and wikis to replace the old yakkety-yak physical meetings. If Elders want to sit around jawing and writing long-hand minutes, they need to realize they're going to be doing it alone.

Most Elders have used meetings as the primary means of group communication in their careers — everything from sitting around an elegant mahogany table in a swanky board room to gathering around the tailgate of a pick-up truck out in the boondocks. But the younger set don't believe in long, boring meetings any more. They do have them, says Kadlec, but not as many and they aren't the old style with long agendas. Short and sweet is the modern style, with email and instant messaging to plug the gaps. It's a constant source of wonder, and occasional irritation, to Elders that young people use these methods of communication even if they're sitting a few paces away from one another. From shorter, flexible meetings follow flexible schedules, videoconferencing (heard of Skype and iChat?) and collaborative wikis which are common documents on the internet open to multiple parties for entering and editing text.

Elders can't avoid looking, well, elderly, but what they should refrain from doing is what so many of them do — telling their younger cohorts how they used to do it. And what makes it even worse — appending the words "in my day" or "in my experience". It's a quick way to an unavoidable conclusion — the younger ones could care less. Dan Kadlec quotes career planning professionals to emphasize that the consequences can be worse than simply putting people to sleep. There is a tendency for experienced workers to see everything from a dated context. By championing, or even mentioning, the good old ways and days, they will inevitably be seen as out of touch and intransigent.

Employees need to be focused on the future, not the past, and this applies fully to Elders as well. They need to have a handle on emerging issues in their fields, a perspective that older workers, and Elders, often lose. They need to stay current and to broaden their knowledge — by attending industry events, taking classes, reading journals and newspapers and, yes, making full use of blogs and other internet devices.

Finally, Elders can make their years of experience a plus rather than a minus. "There is nothing new under the sun" says Ecclesiastes, and the chances are very good that vexatious problems confronting younger colleagues are the same or similar to ones Elders have dealt with in the past. So they need to drop the "good old days" routine and use instead the logic of their position and the confidence of their long experience. A more secure way to being viewed as an asset with current value rather than a fossilized artefact.

May 5, 2010

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