Review of Wisdom At Work: Making Of A Modern Elder

Chris Conley’s book, Wisdom At Work, may be approaching best-seller status and he’s collecting many 5-star reviews on Amazon. Yet if you read it carefully, the book actually reinforces the very thing he’s trying to attack – ageism. Conley defines himself and his relationship with AirBnB entirely in terms of age. He writes about taking on a new role in a youth-oriented company and getting a performance review from someone who’s thirty years younger. I winced when he reports asking someone, “Aren’t you old for an engineer?”

As an aside, Conley conveniently ignores the controversy surrounding AirBnB and its offerings. Millions of people have been displaced in urban areas as residential apartments become high-priced touristic AirBnBs. Just one AIrBnB can disrupt the community of a condo building or a block of single-family homes. There’s a reason hotels have trained managers and security forces. To be sure, some folks benefit from AIrBnB but we need to realize it’s a mixed bag.

The truth is, companies of all sizes have always brought in experienced advisors of all ages to serve as consultants and sometimes as managers. His role could be described without reference to age: he’ll be a consultant and his contribution is so great that the company will help him fill his knowledge gaps.

Conley’s not familiar with the nuts and bolts of tech because, in his previous job, he had people working for him to do those things. He doesn’t need to reach for a silly term like “mentern” to describe this role. In reality, today’s businesses are collaborative. If you don’t know something, you find someone who does. They might be older or younger; they just have to know what they’re doing.

Similarly, Conley’s tips on learning, counseling, and collaborating would apply to people at all ages. The founder of my coworking space, barely 35, would make many of the same observations.
Performance review? That’s a joke. If they don’t like his performance, he’ll gracefully bow out; it’s not like he needs the money or the status.

Anyway, Conley began his journey into elder hood at the age of fifty-two — an age where discrimination has begun to appear. It’s an age that’s not uncommon among senior executives or many kinds of professionals. Calling a fifty-something an “elder” seems a little silly.

In fact, the book seems to fall into the a new sub-genre of highly successful older people joining a millennial-dominated company. We saw this pattern, complete with stereotypes, in the movie The Intern and the book Disrupted. In all these narratives the senior male was the condescending sage and change agent, brought in my senior management solely because of his previous career status.

Conley references Meredith Maran’s book, The New Old Me. But Maran’s attitude is completely different. She wasn’t hired as a change agent and she attempted to fit in with the younger employees in her company. Her sardonic comments on her former coworkers seem based less on age than on the LA culture. As someone who’s lived all over North America, I can say that I had more trouble as a New Yorker adjusting to southern culture than as an “older” person adjusting to younger groups.

We will be truly age-agnostic when someone can apply for a position without having to be a sage or a wise old elder…just an ordinary person who will do the job. In any company, you’ll find people who like to socialize with each other and others — even the same age — who have different values and interests. They’ll get along on the job and who cares what they do on their own time? In any company you’ll find people who need extra consideration, whether they’re young parents, caretakers of relatives, or going through tough times.

I did find some good things. I love the quote from Eric Schmidt, the COO who told Sheryl Sandberg to “get on a rocket ship” and her career will take care of itself. The chapter on “counsel” is good for people of all ages. And some of the resources are quite good. Ironically, the selection of movies shows that people of different ages have teamed up for a long time.

Willie Nelson once said, “ I’ve known straight and gay people all my life. I can’t tell the difference,” We need more people to say, “I’ve worked with young and old people all my life. I can’t tell the difference.”
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“I don’t feel connected to that face.”

From a really good murder mystery by Harry Bingham, Love Story, With Murders. NY: Delacorte Press, 2013.

p 100: “Then I stare at my face in the mirror for a minute, wondering if it feels like mine. In Bram Stooker’s Dracula, the dark count is invisible in mirrors and I often feel something similar is true of me too. I can’t feel any deep relationship between the face that is mine and the person I am. Like they’re two different things. I don’t know if this is something that everyone feels.”

The heroine of this book, DC Fiona Griffiths, is probably in her 30s. And a lot of people who are “old” could relate exactly to where she’s coming from.

So it’s not just about aging … it’s about the feeling.

From John Leland’s Book: Happiness Is A Choice You Make

I wanted to like this book. I ended up hating it.

First, the guy is heartless. His mother had a DNR. On p 19, he writes: “Her DNR said to withhold care if she had no reasonable chance of regaining a meaningful life. But this was more like bringing in a hose if the drapes in her room caught fire. Afterward she would return to the life she had in her neat apartment. She had friends and grandchildren she loved; she had matinee concerts at the Philharmonic. People with much less enjoy great lives. It seemed ungrateful to reject that life as not worth living. If she wanted to starve to death she could do it without our help. We approved the tube.”

This is cruel and heartless. He’s clearly judging his mother and her quality of life. And starving to death isn’t as easy as it seems. He’s able to be more dispassionate with his interview subject, John Sorensen: “None of us really wants immortality on other people’s terms; it’s no kindness to wish a scaled-down version of it on the people who want it least.” (more…)

At 91 You’re Interesting If You’re The Queen

Writing for BBC Smithsonian, Ellen Barry (“It’s the Ultimate TV Prize: An Unscripted Queen Elizabeth” Jan 14, 2018) opens with:

“In the annals of television interviews, a drawing-room chat with a 91-year-old woman, watching home movies and offering occasional droll remarks, would not seem like edgy stuff.”

“But that all changes when the woman is Queen Elizabeth II.”

Those two sentences show a great deal about the world view of aging. If you’re of sufficiently high status, age becomes irrelevant. I’ve been saying this for awhile. Good things in age come from continuity. You can’t begin a new career, but some careers allow you to continue and even embellish on what you’ve done before. You can cement your status. You can’t build it from scratch. (more…)

The Ehrenreich Question: Are We Working Too Hard Because We Want To Avoid Dying?

barbara ehrenreich natural causes

A Review of Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

I wanted to like this book because I share some of Barbara’s attitudes toward health. Like her, I exercise for fun and even more for vanity. I eat what I want and forego medical screenings. Unfortunately, as other reviewers noted, the book turns into a rant that gets a little annoying. Overall the book suffers — on a larger scale — from the same flaw that undermined Bait and Switch. Ehrenreich takes a particular example from her own experience, generalizes, and editorializes. (more…)

“You’re so wise…” is not a compliment

Someone posted on Facebook:

“My husband gave advice to a guy who’s feeling discouraged in dating. I overheard him advising the guy, ‘You can practice by talking to women in their 70s, just to learn how to relate to women as real people, and maybe get some advice on how to approach younger women.'”

So now the role of an “older” woman is to be an unpaid relationship coach to a clueless guy. And of course she’s filled with advice on how to deal with women in their twenties, since it’s been awhile and dating norms have, um, changed just a little. (more…)