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.”