As they move into the latter stages of their careers, baby boomers are discovering that the norms that applied to previous generations no longer hold sway. While their parents were able to rely on experience accumulated from decades on the job, today's older workers are seeing their jobs change around them — and sometimes disappear out from under them. Equipment and processes are evolving quickly, rendering useless much of the knowledge and skills they spent years amassing. As a result, older workers can end up feeling like the office dinosaur: outdated, irrelevant and obsolete.
But it doesn't have to be that way, say career counselors and educators. There's still a need for experienced employees.
"It's all about adding value, at any age," said Michelle Love, chief marketing officer for MRA, parent company of a human resources consulting firm called Trusight. "It's the total package: having the skills, having the confidence, and then also understanding that the same rules apply when you're in your 50s as when you're in your 20s. At the end of the day, those who add value to the organization are highly sought after."
Baby boomers are rewriting the book on how age affects lifestyle, including their roles in the workforce. The number of full-time employees 60 and older is higher than it's ever been, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and predictions are that it will continue to rise as the remainder of the generation charges toward what used to be retirement age.
Instead of lamenting that things aren't like they used to be, older workers should embrace the changes, Love said.
"Where we are in our 50s is so different from where people were in their 50s just 30 years ago," she said. "We have people who are vibrant, interested, active — not even just active, but on the leading edge — despite age. And it is all about attitude. The mentality is ageless."
Stereotypes are one of the biggest hurdles faced by older workers, but not just the labels assigned to them by younger workers; the bigger danger is that older workers buy into typecasting and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Our society is hung up on statistical averages and overgeneralizing based on age or generation," said Verna Monson, an educational psychologist who is founder of Fifth Wave Evaluation Consulting in Minneapolis. "There's a lot more individual variation in ability and motivation. Not all 20-somethings are interested in learning technology, and I've met 80-year-olds who can whip out their iPhone to look up stock prices."
A person's mind-set is crucial. "It doesn't matter if we're talking about technology or sports or playing the piano," she said. "If you believe that you can or can't do something, you likely will be right either way."
Stephen Brookfield has spent nearly 40 years studying the supposed barriers to older-adult learning, and the professor in the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas has come to the conclusion that most of them are overrated.
"That idea that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is an absolute myth," said Brookfield, whose research has focused on adults who go back to school, often as a result of needing more education to keep current in their professions or being forced to learn something new because their jobs have evaporated.
Mental acuity changes as people age, but not always for the worse, he said. On the contrary, some of the changes are for the better.
"There's a difference between what's called 'fluid' and 'crystallized' intelligence," he said. Fluid intelligence is mental nimbleness, and that can decrease with age. Crystallized intelligence "deals with taking skills and concepts and applying them. If anything, that improves with age."
More important than age is the perceived usefulness of the subject matter, he said.
"Grandparents who don't even know what a (computer) mouse is learn how to Skype when they discover they can use it to keep in touch with their grandchildren," he said. "On the other hand, people don't intrinsically want to learn a new skill set that doesn't seem to be of any utility. Why complicate life when the old system is working?"
Experience still has a place in the workplace.
"The greatest gift an employee can bring to the table is experience and knowledge," Love said. "I'd much rather hire someone who is self-sufficient than someone who needs a lot of training."
There also are little things one can do to stave off the appearance of being an office dinosaur, Love said.
"This might be controversial, but I'm going to say it anyway: If you're still carrying around a flip phone, that's part of the problem," she said. "If you're carrying a smartphone or tablet or both, that's a visible demonstration that you want to remain relevant."
She's not arguing that it's all you have to do. "It's way beyond just getting a smartphone, but that's one of the basic things," she said. "Get a smartphone and make sure you know how to operate a tablet — that's how business operates today. And don't tell people that you're not connected. That's the kiss of death right there."