Wisdom at work: how to be a modern elder

Modern Elder


Chip Conley sold his boutique hotel company when he was 52 and joined Airbnb as Head of Global Hospitality. Although he had decades of experience, he was surrounded by 20-something tech-savvy youngsters. He saw himself both as mentor and intern – or ‘mentern’ – both imparting his knowledge and learning from his younger colleagues.

He also found that many people his age were feeling that the world of work was changing so rapidly that they were in danger of being left behind. Yet at the same time there was news of tech companies hitting problems because, although they had the tech know-how, they lacked business nous.

He decided to write about it. His book Wisdom at work: how to reinvent the second half of your career is the result, Published this week, it is Chip’s fifth book.

He says: “I was noticing people my age or 10 years on either side. They are living longer, but feeling more irrelevant. I felt motivated to write, not to tell my own story, but to illuminate a societal issue which is becoming more and more important.”

He adds: “The dominant technology my generation grew up with was the tv, but it had no impact on our working lives. Now our working lives are very reliant on technology. Young people today have grown up with it integrated into their lives. They are digital natives. It is very clear that those of us over 45 may be feeling we have an expiration date, but that’s not true.”

Chip, now Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership at Airbnb, points instead to older workers’ emotional intelligence – their knowledge of how humans and organisations work which has often been gleaned over decades of experience. It is not something there is a shortcut to, he states. “That knowledge is learned over time. You cannot microwave relational knowledge,” says Chip.

He adds that today’s world is more about communicating via screen. This means people can miss out on face to face communication. “You might know about the inner working of your iphone, but not about the person you need to collaborate with,” he says. While the world of work still relies mainly on humans, that knowledge is vital.

Moreover, he adds, the fundamentals of jobs often remain the same.

Mutual mentoring

Chip says he thinks informal mutual mentoring – of old to young and young to old – is the future. “It means both young and old bring what they know best to the table,” he states. He has experienced the benefits himself, working with a technologist who taught him about web tools and business apps. In turn he was able to help his mentee with understanding some of what he has learned from years in the hospitality business. “The old three-stage life of learn, earn, retire is evaporating,” says Chip, adding that it is in part driven by the younger generation and the fact they know their working lives will be longer. “Younger people do not want to live their lives in that way. People want to take time out in their careers and do other things. The longer we live the more we will need periods to regroup.”

Chip’s book is the basis for the Modern Elder Academyan upscale, boutique resort and retreat in Baja California Sur, Mexico, which addresses several midlife issues. It offers, for instance, a week-long programme to help people repurpose themselves and a reboot programme for those who have taken career breaks and are looking to return to the workplace. Many are mums. Chip says they have a lot of skills to offer in addition to their professional experience, including emotional intelligence and leadership.

He feels there has been a lot of progress made on promoting of gender and race in recent years. However, age has been left out of the equation. “We have to start thinking that age is a form of diversity too and that having multigenerational teams is good for business,” he says.

Chip would like to see more research on the benefits of age diverse companies as well as employers following best practice and becoming smarter about older people. He says: “Employers need to understand what older people are looking for and to listen to them. They may want to gradually reduce their hours. Most employers think people are either full time or no time, but there is a need for a handing over period, a period of knowledge transfer.”

His book makes that case eloquently.

*Wisdom at work: how to reinvent the second half of your career by Chip Conley, is published on 20th September, price £14.99

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