It started in 1881. Prussian president Otto Von Bismark developed a radical suggestion.

Retirement.

In a time when people worked until they dropped dead, it was a departure. Von Bismark’s idea was different than the modern conception. His argument was “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Life expectancy has zoomed to 78 years. Modern health care treats maladies. Few people in their 60’s or even 70’s fit Von Bismark’s “disabled or invalid” category.

Yet, in the workplace (especially in tech industries), gray hair is the only disability recognized. Forced retirements and “downsizings” of older Americans are the norm to make way for the up-and-coming digital nomads.

Is there a place for wisdom in our institutions? Does experience count as much as the ability to code?

Chip Conley thinks so and argues his point in his new book, [email protected]: The Making of a Modern Elder.

Conley founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality at the age of 26. After the economic chaos of 2008 claimed his business, he was a 50-year-old without anything to do. Brian Chesky, the 20-something founder of Airbnb, recruited him to serve as the company’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy.

He found himself surrounded by digital nomads without a clue about their tech language and without their tech skills. Can a gray-headed middle-aged man have a role in a company full of youth?

The answer is yes. Older people can be the “elder.” Out of the role of elder, he wrote [email protected]

The Role of Elder

He argues that those in their 50’s and 60’s (and beyond) still serve a vital role forgotten in both business and institutions. That is the role of insightful sage and guide.

He uses the illustration of Google vs. The Librarian. Ask Google a question and returns hundreds of answers. When you ask a librarian, they return one answer—the right answer. The modern elder is a librarian to the Google generation.

The Strength of the Elder

Conley describes the contrast between DQ (digital intelligence) and EQ (emotional intelligence). Younger people bring to society the ability to navigate the digital waves. They use Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the social platform du jour. What they cannot do is interact well with others. The iconic symbol of the modern generation is a downward pointed face illuminated by the glow of a cellphone screen. The downside of digital mediums is they leave people remote. Many cannot read emotions, understand anger or hurt, and cannot resolve face-to-face conflict.

That is where emotional intelligence comes into play. Through decades of personal interactions, elders understand the emotions, reactions, and motivation of human beings. What they lack in technical savvy they more than compensate for in their ability to connect on a human level.

Conley argues that the young need the EQ the elder can provide, and the elder needs to learn the digital skills of the modern digital nomad.

It means that the young must learn from the old and the old must learn from the young. Both generations must mix, blend, and serve beside each other. Neither is whole by themselves in a complex world.

Conley advises that the modern elder must become a mentern, a blend of “mentor” and “intern.” This is best illustrated by the 2015 movie The Intern starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. De Niro is a retired executive who needs something in his life and becomes an intern at a tech startup company. He knows nothing of the tech side but knows much about life. In the interactions, he learns about digital things but teaches life skills to the struggling young workers of the tech company.

Why are those who have more time on their tires valuable? One is due to the nature of life. As we live, we recognize patterns faster. Those patterns allow us to predict what will happen. Others can learn useful lessons from other’s bad experiences.

The author dispels the myths of aging such as higher health care costs, absenteeism, and other false ideas. The misconceptions linger in both society and believed by seniors themselves.

The book presents an excellent overview of the problem of what do you do with a growing population of older people in the midst of a society enamored with youth.

What roles should those older be able to play?

Observations

They must become partners with the younger generation. Those in their 20’s and 30’s know how the what. It takes those of a certain age, who have experienced life to understand why. The first can go while the second can guide.

Both must be humble enough to realize their own deficiencies and treat each other with needed respect. Ego whispers through both earbuds and hearing aids. To gain value, both the young and old should know what they don’t know and learn from the other.

We must, in the midst of a youthful social sweep, realize we need the mine of the wisdom of those who have lived. American society with all their institutions are shutting the door on one of the most valuable resources available—the wisdom of long and well-lived lives.