The secret of older workers

Meet the new team member
Meet the new team member

I’ve read many articles about older workers. They cover different age segments (those in their 40s, 50s, 60s), situations (employed, laid off, retired, wanting a career change, etc.), sides of the generational divide, task at hand (résumé updating, job hunting, layoff survival, accepting a new manager,etc.), and mental landscape (logical analysis, emotional impact, etc.).

On the negative side, I read that older workers can be perceived as having less energy, being less willing to give their all, being less flexible, caring less about their career growth, or being harder to manage.

On the positive side, they can also be perceived as being more mature, more patient, more reliable, better communicators, or able to bring a lifetime of experience to the job.

All true, more or less, most of the time

Generalizations help you navigate and organize reality, providing you don’t let them morph into stereotypes. All of the older worker perceptions are based on grains of truth coming from real experiences, and they’re useful, providing you don’t treat them as foregone conclusions.

But you know what? One aspect of older workers is true virtually all the time yet never gets any airplay.

Get to the point, dammit

I’ll define an older worker as anyone over 40. That’s about halfway in average life expectancy, and it means you’ve been in the workplace for about 20 years. In your personal life, you’ve put down a root or two, and are starting to understand you’re mortal.

I’m struck by the one true attribute missing from every article. It’s never openly discussed. I guess it’s a closely held secret of the over-40 crowd. Well, as a card-carrying member of that crowd, I’m now going to spill the beans.

This secret is true of every older worker, and it accounts for many of the perceived behaviors, both “positive” and “negative”.


Here it comes.

It’s this: Older workers have heard it all before.

We won’t get fooled again

Some people are lucky — they’ve worked in only wonderful companies, and for wonderful bosses. But most of us aren’t so lucky. Most of us experience a mixture during our working years…some of our employers and bosses are wonderful, some are average, and some are terrible. From the sum of our experiences, we detect recurring patterns, and form our own generalizations about the workplace.

Including generalizations about company rah-rah, and these stock management phrases:

  • “You’re our most valuable resource. I’m counting on you to do whatever it takes so that we succeed.”
  • “This is a start-up, so we all need to work late nights and every weekend.”
  • “We’re trying to close a big customer, so everyone needs to pull together.”

Sometimes an extra push is needed (through no fault of the company’s management) to close a big sale or whathaveyou. That’s better than seeing the company stumble financially, which would have worse personal consequences. But it’s a leap from that to a credulous belief in a company or manager. More often than not, a request for superhuman effort is symptomatic of poor planning and/or poor management.

Those “years of experience” possessed by older workers? It means they’ve heard all the corporate bullshit exhortations before. With both good and goddammit-I-won’t-ever-agree-to-that-again results.

Older workers are less gullible because in the past they’ve:

  • Killed themselves for milestones, closing a big sale, making a quarter’s revenue numbers, etc. All for naught, as the company staggered on in a coma, or tanked anyway.
  • Been loyal to companies that then laid them off, moved them aside in a reorg, or hired a new team leader instead of promoting from within.
  • Been exhorted to get on board with the new yaddayaddayadda process. It’s new! It’s great! It’s better than yaddayaddayadda–– ! (Note to Scrum zealots: This happens about every five years. Your turn’s coming soon.)
  • Had extroverted bosses tell them they should speak up more.
  • Had introverted bosses tell them they should be more thoughtful.
  • Had turf-conscious bosses tell them they should think more about their group’s needs.
  • Had kiss-up bosses tell them they should think more about their company’s needs.

After you’ve worked a few years in any business in a capitalist free-market, you begin to recognize three inherent truths:

  • The corporation is a soulless beast.
  • Nobody on their deathbed ever said, “I should have spent more time at the office.”
  • Remember those older employees you met when you were just starting out? The way they didn’t kill themselves for the company, like you did? They knew then what you’re just discovering now.

The older worker who isn’t killing himself for your startup, getting on board with the latest zeitgeist, or staying past 5:00pm just might be on to something. He’s already been where you are. And he has a good idea about what’s probably coming next.

[ Updated 9/17/2008: Minor stylistic nits. ]

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