Does Age Matter?

four generations working together

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain

Mark Twain was a very wise man. And yet, age often causes such a chasm in the workplace, affecting teamwork, performance and innovation. Why?

A lot of it comes from perceptions driven by the media: seniors are slow and technology challenged; gen y is self absorbed with a sense of entitlement; and baby boomers are stuck in the past and glory days. Sound about right?

While many of these thoughts don’t originate with us, once we adopt them, they turn inwards, and we run the risk of putting ourselves in age boxes (18-24, 25-33, 34-45, 46-55). Like most things in life, it’s the stories we tell ourselves that get in our way.

Case in point: When asked to speak at Hunter College about navigating change, I was nervous about addressing a room full of students in their early 20s. In my 50s, I found myself thinking not like Mark Twain, but like Will McAvoy, the anchorman character in the hit show The Newsroom, who has that awful fear known as ”Am I  still relevant?”

As I help people address issues with confidence, it’s odd that I even think of this, but that’s exactly why I think of it. If you let it, negative perceptions can shake your confidence to its very core.

So, as I arrived in the classroom, I kept trying to talk myself through it: “It will be alright…just 20-30 minutes, and I’m done and out of here, before they start yawning…..loudly.” See? We can really get fluent in ‘crazy’ when facing fear and doubt.

90 minutes later—yes, 90 minutes–I was in a deep Q and A with the students. I kept looking over to the professor, wondering when to sit down, and she mouthed—“as long as their hands are up, keep going.”

I found that the students were just as nervous as I, if not more so. They were concerned about all the changes they were facing—definitely at a much faster pace than I’ve ever experienced.

They were also frightened of entering the workforce, and being considered too young, too inexperienced, too inferior.  In essence, give or take 30 years, they felt just like me.

They were so relieved when I told them that everyone has fears—no one’s immune. It’s what you do with your fear that matters. You can let it stop you by worrying about the future or getting stuck in the past. Or you can get in the here-and-now, and ask “What’s the next positive step I can take to move myself forward and who can help me?”

It was then that I realized the most relevant lesson of all: No one succeeds alone—no one. The success we felt in that Hunter classroom was a team effort—timeless and transcending all barriers. We can all learn from each other, and we should.

In the workplace, embrace this practice of working together, and there’s nowhere you can’t go. Performance, productivity, and innovation are driven by collaboration and must be unencumbered by preconceptions because they limit us and everyone we touch.

We all have something of value to bring to the table—our different strengths and experiences.

Age, like fear, doesn’t matter. It’s the confidence to move forward together that does.

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