Age and wisdom

In uncertain times, companies should remember the benefits of an older workforce, says Starcom UK's Katrin Schlenzka

In a world of ‘otherism’, where positions are increasingly polarised and the culture wars are setting ‘Boomers’ against ‘Snowflakes’ (and Gen X are roundly ignored), I would like to co-opt Mark Ritson’s exhortation for ‘bothism’. It really isn’t a matter of who is smarter, we just want to be surrounded by the smartest people on our team, regardless of their age.

And let’s face it — being older doesn’t automatically make you wiser. As my repeated attempts to change my eating habits show me, some people never learn!

Knowledge is also not the same as wisdom. I used to know lots of facts (like people’s phone numbers), that I just don’t need to know any more — thanks to technology. Nowadays it is far more important for people to develop applied learning; to know whom to ask and where to look.

It is probably true that more experienced employees have gone through the highs and lows of business and so are less fazed when things get tough (which may be useful in the coming years). They bring a bank of hard-won learning to apply to new challenges.

There is also much to learn however, from younger generations who are more in the habit of finding faster solutions or hacks and may even be more comfortable with failing and learning, while someone like me might be used to going the long way around. Neither is better nor worse — just different and useful in different circumstances.

Experience is a wonderful thing, but we also need to keep our minds open to new ways of approaching challenges.

Our brains are geared towards pattern recognition and the longer you have been working the more data points you have to spot recurring patterns and form a solution. As with any problem-based reasoning, this also has its flaws; if we ‘mis-recognise’ and use a trusted solution for the wrong problem.

Before a child goes to school, they ask thousands of questions, however, once in school we become trained to answer questions. The older we get the more comfortable we become with breaking that behaviour and returning to asking the why.

But isn’t that wonderful that our learning isn’t fixed and finite? Companies can do even more to encourage that ongoing learning and keeping thinking fresh for all ages. Measures like introducing reverse mentoring and devising a lifetime learning plan that contributes to qualifications can help everyone embrace learning and keep skills fresh and relevant.

The more experienced workforce that I have been speaking with want to leave a better industry behind them than the one they joined. A more inclusive one. The under-representation of people 45+ in the agency world is not just an age issue, it also disproportionately affects women and people with lower income backgrounds. The industry we now work in is thankfully a world away from the industry that we joined that sometimes felt like the Hunger Games — making it through a culture that valued work hard, play hard over mental health. But we could still be more inclusive and do more to inspire the next generation of marketers. We should all join forces to fight for this.

With only 18% of the advertising industry being 45+, agencies risk missing out on the wisdom and experience that an older workforce can bring. As the industry faces uncertain times, companies should remember the business benefits of an older workforce:

  • Reap returns on years investing in training — let the older workforce pay it forward
  • Older talent may offer loyalty and stability in a highly volatile job market
  • As our clients’ audiences evolve to include lucrative older audiences, it makes sense to have people who can empathise and reflect these
  • Intergenerational workforces working together create richer solutions for clients
  • As agencies are challenged to move further upstream and engage in meaningful business conversations with clients that add value, an older workforce can command (rightly or wrongly) more attention with senior clients

So, what can the industry do about it?

  1. Don’t automatically look to valuable, higher salaried older talent when tough redundancy choices need to be made
  2. Encourage cross generational learning and understanding (e.g. reverse mentoring)
  3. Be more inclusive in the hiring process to include older candidates even at more junior levels

I look forward to seeing how more businesses look to embrace this approach to working and (excuse the personal plug) but if you’re interested in hearing more about my thoughts on ageism, watch an interview I did with Starcom and Channel 4.

Featured image: Edward Eyer / Pexels

Katrin Schlenzka, Managing Partner, PGOne at Starcom UK

Katrin is an experienced media professional with a strong marketing and communication planning background.In her current role as account lead on one of Starcom’s largest accounts, Katrin is responsible for identifying new revenue streams, developing successful media packages and delivering promotional initiatives for clients. With over 20 years in industry and nearly a decade at Starcom, Katrin has worked across a number of brands, from Olay, Aussie and Max Factor (P&G brands) to Cadbury and Kraft Heinz in previous roles. Katrin also has a keen interest in career coaching to help build up the next generation of media experts.

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