The modern elder in the digital age

/ 05:02 AM September 14, 2018

I discovered the term “modern elder” from bestselling author and hotelier Chip Conley, who spoke at the World Business Forum Sydney on May 31. Conley described the modern elder as a person who can be both a mentor and intern at the same time, someone who is both a teacher and a student, one who can impart guidance and wisdom while being a continuous learner.

I realized that I have been doing those things already—I am in constant pursuit of knowledge, and enjoy being able to share that knowledge through teaching, consulting, mentoring and writing.


Remember the movie “The Intern” starring Robert de Niro? He is the movie version of the modern elder, a 70-year old retired businessman working as a senior intern of an online fashion site, learning new and different things, while being able to give personal and professional advice, sharing knowledge that sometimes feels like patriarchal correction (even a modern version of a tribe elder).

Beyond business, older mentors have the opportunity to provide values, ethics and professionalism to younger members of the team/tribe that shape culture and wellbeing.


My trip to Singapore last year was to do a serendipity walk to discover and learn new and unrelated things. I randomly attended a session on dementia offered by a hospital, an evening session on mindfulness offered by a government-supported educational institution, and a health products exhibit in a commercial area, all ran by younger people.

Modern elders know when to be a mentor and when to be an intern, and they are open to intergenerational learning. A personal example is when I learned how to bike at age 51, taught by my former student half my age, as a kind of reverse coaching. It’s part of the curiosity quotient of a modern elder: always wanting to learn something new and keeping the mind active and sharp.

I remember asking marketing research guru Ned Roberto over a decade ago to validate the age preference of companies hiring young people 21 to 35 years old for sales jobs. He discovered that experience trumped age and that the top sales performers of member companies of the Direct Selling Association of the Philippines are mostly in their 40s and 50s, with twice the experience and size of network.

In many startups, age can be an advantage as inexperience is equated to more risk taking. However, the leadership skill of young entrepreneurs can be nurtured better and faster with the help of a modern elder who has experience and expertise as well as the luxury of being in self-actualizing mode.

In the same forum, Conley also predicted an important job in the future is not a software developer, but a soft skill developer in the digital age. As more enterprising young people enter the workforce, they will need the guidance of an experienced mentor to fully harness their talents. An old dog may not learn new tricks, but they can surely teach them to young ones.

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