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AGEISM: How Long Can We Afford It?

We’re setting ourselves–and the country–up by relegating anyone over 60 to the “discard pile.”  How long are we going to keep doing this same dumb thing?

Why are we setting these people adrift instead of using what they know and what they are good at?  As the population bulge that is the Baby Boom moves into the “retirement” phase of life, the cost of this folly will skyrocket.  Is that what we want our grandkids paying for?

The current assumption is that as you age, you become inept, but research doesn’t support that. Seventy percent of what we blame on aging is the result of lousy lifestyle choices.  And a lot of what we assume to be so about the marauding ineptitude of aging is just plain baloney.

The prevailing wisdom is that those who can afford to want to retire.  But in a 2005 study of over 3000 baby boomers, the Merrill Lynch Foundation found that only 17% wanted that lifestyle.

Every time we “retire” someone, we lose their expertise.  Younger workers could be a lot better at what they do a lot faster if the “old pros” were serving as mentors.   We lose senior members’ understanding of the context in which the work got done, too–and the resulting problem-solving, negotiating, and customer support advantages.   We lose a ton of information about what works and what doesn’t across the spectrum of the jobs that older workers are retiring from–which is most of them.

The system we have in place, assumes our most experienced, skilled workers want and need to “disappear”  at a specific age.  We pay them to do so.   What’s the benefit of that?

Even worse, the consequences  of not having a purpose in life are dire. So we set those same capable people up for a downward spiral would could avoid just be asking them to use what they know how to do.  People who have a reason to get up in the morning stay a lot healthier and live longer.  It’s a double whammy for the country–first we pay them not to work and then we pay for healthcare they may not have even needed if they were working.

Worst of all though, we are each setting ourselves up for this same frustrating decline into perceived uselessness by letting the system continue as is.

There a few things we need to accept:

  • Every person in society deserves a purpose and needs to be encouraged to claim it.
  • Not all important jobs are full time.  Some aren’t even paid.
  • “Old” is not a disease.   Wrinkles don’t erase competence.
  • Things don’t improve by having capable people sitting around doing nothing.

The idea that youth and progress are the only things that have value  has been around since the Second Great Awakening that began around 1825.  It’s time to let go of this outdated thinking and grab onto something more innovative. The challenge is not in chosing between young and old. The true test of our mettle as a nation, as business entities, and as individuals is in becoming a culture that values–and uses–both the freshness of its youth and the wisdom of its elders.


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