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Bringing Intergenerational Wisdom to the Workplace

New book says that older workers can offer guidance and help build better teamwork


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Chip Conley is the author of “Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder.” 

En español | No matter how much technology changes the way that we work, companies will always be in the market for wisdom. And what’s the best way to get the knowledge and insight they need? By hiring a “modern elder.”

That’s the argument Chip Conley, an entrepreneur and strategic adviser for Airbnb, makes in his new book, Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. As the former head of one of the world’s largest boutique hotel chains, Conley experienced culture shock when — at age 52 — he was hired to help shape Airbnb’s global hospitality strategy. It was his first time working for a technology company, an industry where coding and algorithms are king and employees often are considered over the hill by the time they turn 40. What Conley discovered, however, is that when older and younger workers collaborate, everyone benefits.

“The number one thing we have to realize is that there’s an opportunity for an intergenerational potluck,” Conley says. Older workers, he says, can bring the knowledge and interpersonal skills they have built during their careers, while younger workers can offer their expertise with new technologies. Together, they can nourish each other’s professional growth, along with their company’s success.

“Older people create a collaborative workplace in a much better way,” Conley says. “Understanding how to get things done, understanding what the process is to get things done, understanding what the motivations are for the other people in the room — those are things that, actually, you get better with over time.”

While older Americans are becoming a bigger part of the nation’s workforce, there is evidence that they can face discrimination due to their age. Changing the way these experienced workers are perceived and treated is part of what Conley aims to accomplish with his book. That effort starts with the book’s title, which is meant to reclaim the word “elder” so that it means a person who has important insights rather than someone who has grown frail due to age.

“What I like about ‘modern elder’ is the fact that it sort of gave a fresh perspective to the idea that an elder can have value again. Because in some ways, the value of the elder has been sort of going away over the last 100 years,” Conley says.

But being a modern elder is not just about sharing wisdom acquired over the years. The role also requires a willingness to explore new ideas. Conley says that one way older adults can demonstrate their value is by showing a desire and a willingness to learn.

“It’s all about curiosity and engagement,” he says. When someone is eager to learn, “you don’t notice that the person is older; you just see that this person is a passionate, smart spirit.”

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