Better With Age: Overcoming Our Obsession With Youth

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"I'm 46 and I'm in my prime"… said no one in advertising ever.

Maybe it's time for that to change.

Diversity and inclusion is as hot a topic as ever, and age is an important point in that constellation. Especially in the tech and ad sectors. Yet it's often overlooked simply because ageist stereotypes are so pervasive that even older people believe them.

A huge part of our fear of aging is cultural, but another part is practical.

People see older employees as less adaptive and innovative, or just plain in decline. Take these examples from a recent Washington Post story on ageism:

In a 2015 survey by the Harris Poll...65 percent of boomers rated themselves as being the 'best problem-solvers/troubleshooters,' and only 5 percent of millennials agreed. Fifty-four percent of millennials thought boomers were the "biggest roadblocks." Sometimes these perceptions come straight from the top: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said "young people are just smarter."

The stereotypes aren't necessarily true, but like every other stereotype, they start early and they are powerful. As Jere Daniel writes in Psychology Today:

We develop negative stereotypes about aging by the time we are six years old, the same age we develop negative stereotypes about race and sex. These stereotypes persist as we grow up, completely unaware that we even acquired them or granted them our unconditional acceptance. With our understanding of the subject forever frozen, we grow into old age assuming the stereotypes to be true. And we live down to them.

I've always been of the opinion that life is 10% what happens and 90% what you make of it. So, in a culture where youth is wasted on the young and aging is seen as a plague to be combated, how do we start living it up?

Choose facts over fiction

There's a lot of evidence to suggest the we get smarter and sharper over time. Our problem-solving abilities in our mid-20s haven't peaked yet, because our brains haven't fully developed. Huge breakthroughs often come in our late 30s, according to Atlantic writer Olga Kazhan. "Genius, it seems, happens when a seasoned mind sees a problem with fresh eyes." To me, that's true well beyond your late 30s.

Fight stereotypes

The best way to fight a stereotype is not to become one. I've done more training programs in the last year than I ever did at age 20. I read articles on our industry non-stop. I talk to people of every age group about what's happening and what's next. I'm active not just in our agency and industry, but the world at large. And with every new thing I learn, I take pride in the fact that I'm able to contextualize it with the experience and knowledge I already have.

Tell your story

The truth is … I am so much better at my job than I was at the beginning of my career. I know when to cut my losses on a project or candidate and walk-away. I'm more confident and direct. I make better decisions more quickly. I've led a business in double-digit growth and through economic downturn. There's no way I ever could have studied my way to the kind of knowledge I have now. It's BEEN hard-won through experience.

Find role models

One story I love is that of Barbara Beskind, IDEO's 90-year-old designer. After seeing a "60 Minutes" special with IDEO's CEO, she reached out to the company for a job. They saw her value, hired her, and now? Not only is she adding enormous value to designs that will benefit aging populations, she feels gratified by her work, saying it's one of the best chapters of her working life. Our world needs more stories like this ONE.

Remember your worth

Brands market to the world. Advertising and design agencies need to mirror that world. That means representing older populations too. The question we ask across our agency is, "Does It Work?" And one thing we've learned in asking that -- across many contexts and scenarios -- is that if you really want to know the answer, it really matters who you ask. Messages should be custom-made and targeted for a marketer's audience. Having people on staff from different backgrounds and experiences helps an agency to better reach everyone.

Age, despite the fact that it happens to everyone, is something we tend to see as happening to everyone else. When we confront aging in our own life, we are reminded that it's not a valueless proposition, nor are older generations a valueless population.

If we can shift our attitudes in the workplace and as a society, we have amazing opportunities to bring mature perspectives into the fold. Perspectives that can shift our work as radically, and as beautifully, as younger ones often do.

And that's something that makes me excited.

That, and getting older.

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