Older workers must play to their strengths

Professional Perspectives

I’ve reached the stage in life that has been called Late Adulthood (55 to 75). This means that I have younger colleagues who have taken early retirement, and older colleagues who are still working. A further complication is the fact that I’m in a field where age doesn’t command respect. Indeed, a number of people believe that there is active age discrimination in IT.

My professional life began as a mathematician, and common wisdom says mathematicians do their best work before 30. It turns out that the first significant contribution of mathematicians does happen early – at a mean age of 27.3, according to one study. But it’s not clear that the “best” work of mathematicians happens before that age. It depends on how you interpret the data.

Next, I had to face the fact that productivity seems to peak in our 50s, and declines thereafter. This is broadly true in the Canadian economy and will cause serious problems in Canada by 2040, according to a recent study by the C.D. Howe Institute. This broad conclusion may not apply to all of us, and I’m obviously anxious that it does not apply in my case.

A number of forces shape the meaning of Late Adulthood. There are physical changes, changes in family situations and even mental and emotional changes. The challenge is to minimize the impact of negative change and maximize the benefit of positive change and to find, or develop, economic and social roles where the Late Adult can contribute effectively.

Their average energy levels may be reduced, but most Late Adults are able to put in full working days and to competitively respond to emergencies. Families, after all, will usually demand less of their time and attention. The critical changes for the knowledge worker are those that alter mental abilities. Young mathematicians see the world through fresh eyes and bring a keen, sharply-honed intelligence to bear on problems. As such, it’s not surprising that many do their best work while young.

It’s true that professionals under 30 have solved many of the hardest technical problems in IT. And it’s foolish for the Late Adult IT professional to pretend that she has the same keen, sharply-honed intelligence. Fortunately, answers to important problems in the real world require an awareness of, and sensitivity to, environmental and contextual considerations. The most appropriate solution will often win out over the best technical solution.

The Late Adult IT professional can lay claim to being the best person to find those appropriate solutions. The trick is to discover or develop roles where there is a recognized need for appropriate solutions and, moreover, where the reality of Late Adulthood is not seen as a barrier – regular full-time jobs are less promising than limited-term contract positions.

All of this is strongly coloured by the emotional response of the person who reaches Late Adulthood. Has he made a real effort to stay current with technology and with best practices? Does she understand and accept the power limitations of a fixed-term contract? Has the Late Adult found effective ways to remain open and optimistic?

It isn’t over when you reach Late Adulthood. But you need to be creative in searching out and developing roles that play to your recognized strengths. On a larger scale, Canada can’t afford to ignore or slight the possible contributions of Late Adults. That’s promising, especially for those of us who count themselves among them.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at robert@fabian.ca.

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