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Sloan Center News

How Old Are You?

30 July 2009—Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting sponsored by Civic Ventures. Marc Freeman, founder and CEO, shared an interesting story. He explained how he recently went to register at the hotel: He showed them his AARP card … and then asked for two cribs for his children.

Unusual? Consider this:

Not too long ago, I joined a team of managers to discuss the business case for paying attention to today’s multi-generational workforce. Most striking was how people introduced themselves. The group around the table included:

  • A woman in her mid 40s who felt like she was starting over in her career. She had held a “high-powered” job early in her career and then withdrew from the labor force to focus on child rearing. Her children were now in high school.
  • A man in his late 40s who had been in the same profession for his entire career but was new to the firm. He was recently re-married and had a preschool child.
  • A man in his late 40s who started working for the company in the summers during college and became a full-time employee once he graduated. He recently became grandfather and was already thinking about retirement.

How old are you? Well, it depends. And what does “age” mean, anyway?

The Sloan Center on Aging & Work refers to the age as the “prism of age” because age is multi-dimensional. People may feel “old” in some ways (for example, they might be “old” in terms of a life stage event such as having grandchildren or providing eldercare) but “young” in other ways (such as starting a new career). In fact, findings from our recent Age & Generations Study suggest that many people in their 50s (and older) say they are still in early career. In short, different age-related factors complicate or inform how we see our own or another person’s “age.”

Why is this important?

Thinking about age as a multi-dimensional construct can help all of us – it challenges our assumptions about young employees, employees at mid-life, and older employees. Indeed, age-related factors (such as the age of a youngest child) could have a larger impact on someone’s employment experiences than chronological age alone. Secondly, many policies and practices that are institutionalized at the workplace (ranging from recruitment to leadership training) reflect out-dated expectations related to age. If we expand our thinking about age to include life stage, generation, or career stage, we might think more creatively about the resources and opportunities available to employees of all ages.

So how old do you think your employees are?

By the way, I’ll be 59 next month. And I’m still mid-career.