My silver-haired grandfather worked into his 80s. He ran his Chicago law firm on trust and signed clients with a handshake. But his last few years of practicing were rough. He wasn't as sharp as a decade earlier, and the young lawyers in his firm began questioning whether his handshakes were causing the law firm to get stiffed on fees.
Lately, I've been thinking about Grandpa and what it means to get older in the workplace. I look around my corporate neighborhood and see strong companies run by leaders in their late 60s and 70s. But I also see a huge push, intensified by the technology revolution, to stay edgy, innovative and current. And, I see tension. In some organizations, I even see a forced changing of the guard.
When it comes to the workplace, is 70 really the new 50? Today, people are health conscious and living longer. Older workers and leaders often feel empowered, even balanced, by continuing to work into their 70s and 80s. But is it possible to age and stay relevant at work?
As more Americans push back the date of retirement, I think that's a question more of us will be asking.
Clearly, attitude plays a role. A nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project finds that a majority (54 percent) of workers ages 65 and older say the main reason they work is that they want to. Just 17 percent say they need the paycheck. Those senior workers who hold onto the passion for their jobs are the ones who take the steps to stay relevant, experts say. At 71, Tom Tew still practices law full time at Tew Cardenas in Miami. "As long as I'm doing quality work and my clients are happy, I'll keep practicing. I enjoy work."
Physical health tends to factor in, too. Older workers at the top of their game see a correlation between physical and mental health. Two years ago, Tew bought Biscayne Boxing & Fitness Club in Miami, where he exercises five days a week and feels he's building stamina. "The litigation world I'm in is an energy-intense place. Working out is so important. You can't let yourself go physically," Tew told me. I asked him if law firms need to be managed by younger partners and what he thinks of the mandatory retirement age some still enforce. "Every 70-year-old is different. Some should have retired at 60. Some still have it."
Behind successful workplace longevity is a willingness to keep learning. In today's global economy, where the fundamentals of a business may change overnight, senior workers and leaders who are open to change, even interested in staying ahead of it, manage to keep their jobs. "In leadership, age is irrelevant," said Mike Myatt, managing director of N2growth and a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs. "It's a matter of performance. Either someone is engaged, staying up to date and getting the job done, or he is lacking."
At 81, Alfredo Lopez-Gomez still practices medicine five days a week and spends a minimum of an hour a day reading medical journals, books and new research. He hears about the latest medical advances at his weekly lunches with his younger colleagues. And he passes on his knowledge and solicits feedback when he lectures residents and interns two times a month at Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami. Lopez-Gomez says he sees about 30 patients a week, most of them longtime patients or word-of-mouth referrals. "I'll continue until my wife tells me I'm no longer mentally OK to work," he said.
The self-marketing expected of young up-and-comers becomes even more crucial for older workers. "Make your strengths visible," said Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Of course, experience typically is a key asset. Tew says clients hire him because of his years of experience. They want his judgment in regulatory banking matters, something younger lawyers just aren't able to provide — even with their smartphones to look up answers. Pitt-Catsouphes says older workers tend to feel passionate about their jobs. "It's OK to express that. That's the strength they bring that counteracts the assumptions that they are one step toward retirement."
Older workers use a variety of strategies to continue to gain workplace respect. Joseph DeMaria, 70, of CEO TruckMax and vice president of Kenworth of South Florida, a commercial truck dealer, surrounds himself with younger people who stimulate him to remain relevant, particularly with technology. "I combine with them in creating our ongoing business plan. They gain my knowledge, street wise, and I gain the innovative thinking of younger people."
DeMaria said age has made him a better business person and that he tries to share that wisdom. "I approach decisions more conservatively, think things out more. Sometimes a young kid who's an Internet whiz is too quick to make a decision. I say, 'Calm down; let's think it out,' and we modify it."
Rather than hiding her age, 75-year-old Loretta H. Cockrum, founder of Foram Group in Miami, says she embraces it. She has let her hair grow in its natural shade of grey. But that hasn't cost her the respect of her 30-something workforce she is grooming for succession. "I don't treat them as employees. I treat them as the future of my company. I'm very focused on the culture and making sure it continues."
Cockrum said she has pulled back some, going into the office more selectively, letting her younger workers step up and make decisions. But she can't even imagine the day when she retires. "I don't think mentally or emotionally I'm prepared to do that. I still have a lot to do."
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