In the evergrowing market of innovation, society continues to stress on start-ups, mostly high-tech, founded by people, mostly the young generation. I started to wonder where do all those sage and productive people entering their 50s or 60s go? If retirement isn’t yet their imminent choice of the remaining lifestyle, what could they contribute to the society especially the industry where the day-to-day wise business decisions have to be made other than volunteering in public organizations using skills with little or no relevance to the vast amount of professional experience accumulated throughout their lifetime careers.
These are generally regarded as aging workers in the job market. If you are lucky, you may have started your own business by the time you are the 50s or 60s and be somewhat successful or accumulated enough fortune without worrying about living through retirement. But if you are not so aggressive (but still produce quality hard work) and you lost your job for whatever reasons at your 50s or 60s but are still in need of income for whatever reasons, chances for you to get hired become cruelly slim regardless of what profession you are in especially the high-tech business. I noticed an interesting phenomenon that is in traditional industries such as textile or civil engineering, age seems to equate to experience while in EE or software industries, age appears to equate to being outdated. In Taiwan, if people in their 40s or 50s (don’t even talk about 60s) have not yet been promoted to management, they are most likely considered sluggish and incompetent ready for the next round of layoff. This is unfortunate and particularly true in Taiwan unlike the higher age tolerance or acceptance in silicon valley in the US back to the 1990s and early 2000s when I used to work there. One of my colleagues was a 60+ years old software engineer and still managed to maintain well his work quality with excellent domain knowhow.
I think I just touched on a very key aspect here, the “domain knowhow". This is something that can only accumulate in time and grow with age and the cool part about it is that it never fades. Google leveraged it when Eric Schmidt was introduced to the team as CEO when the company’s business took off. Airbnb did the same in consulting with a hotel management veteran during their expansion leading to its later success. The young generation may be creative with various cool ideas but, in the end, it is the domain knowhow that ultimately gives the business the needed thrust to move forward.
During a recent interview with the renowned Taiwan-born performing artist Kris Phillips (費翔), then at his 50s, the lady interviewer asked him “How do you feel at this age while still competing with so many talented young performers?" His answer struck me vividly that I can never forget “You know what? Age is, in fact, my advantage.", short, brisk, and powerful, he answered with a smile of confidence on his face that I think is the kind of mentality every aging worker should keep up with.
There is a Chinese saying “Ignore the elderly at your peril (不聽老人言，吃虧在眼前)". Without flaunting seniority in any way, this more or less echos the hidden value of aging workers’ domain knowhow. The questions now come as to how to extract and make use of these invaluable assets accumulated through time. One way I can think of is to create a culture of coaching inside corporates where these aging workers can share their experience through workshop where young workers can gain their wisdom or professional knowhow rather than seeing aging workers as financial or social burdens. It is what you can do at your age not what age you are in when doing something that actually counts. In fact, I just got the third master degree in my never-ending learning journey in Electrical Automotive Engineering at the age of 58 beating all the young classmates with distinction. I’m ready for another 20 years of career ahead of me. This was greatly and primarily inspired and motivated by the founder of a fine Italian chocolate machine maker, Renato Selmi. During one of my visit to their premises, I happened to walk by Mr. Selmi’s office and was shocked by what I saw. Mr. Selmi, then in his 80s, was so focused on designing on the drawing board for their next generation machine. At the time, the business operation had already been passed on to his son Paolo Selmi. Creativity can come from any ages. I firmly believe that age should never be the only balance that weighs people’s value.