If Chip Conley has his way, midlife—and the tens of millions of people muddling through it—will undergo a dramatic transformation in the coming years. Kind of like what happened to the hospitality industry when Airbnb showed up. And that analogy is no accident.
Conley made a big splash when, at 26, he started the Joie de Vivre chain of boutique hotels. He built a reputation as a visionary in reimagining the hotel experience and became a thought leader, sharing business and life lessons in four popular books.
Soon after selling his company when he was nearly 50, Conley joined Airbnb in a newfangled position he calls a “modern elder,” a role that’s part mentor, part intern (or “mentern”)—someone sharing wisdom and experience while at the same time being curious and open to learning.
Conley’s latest book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, is an account of what he learned there, why others should follow his lead, and why every workplace should have some modern elders. The book is loaded with resources both for people trying to transform their current roles and workplaces and for employers seeking more age-diverse workforces.
At a time when few business leaders include age as part of the diversity conversation, Conley’s marketing savvy—and connections in the tech and startup world—may be just what’s needed to change that. Like every other kind of diversity, Conley says, there’s a business case for inclusion: “The companies that will flourish will be those that proactively create this new ‘modern elder-friendly’ workplace before their competitors.”
I hope he’s right. Below are highlights from my chat with Conley.
In your book, you promise that readers will learn to leverage their experience not just to be “relevant” but to be “indispensable” in the modern workplace. Really?
The traditional elder of the past was about reverence. The modern elder is all about relevance. When I talk about elders, I’m not talking about obligatory attention because of age.
I believe you can become indispensable because the thirst and need in younger people for those who are both wise and relevant is enormous.
Just because you’re brilliant at technology doesn’t mean you know a damn thing as a human. As technology becomes more commodified and if AI is our future, humans become the differentiator. How you effectively lead teams and collaborate is incredibly important.
What is the top bit of advice you share with anyone who wants to position themselves as a modern elder?
The best advice I can give is suggesting that we adopt a beginner’s mind in midlife. Curiosity is the life-affirming elixir for creativity, innovation, and resiliency.
What specifically can people do to become modern elders?
As an older employee, just showing a genuine interest in what younger people are doing can create an intergenerational bridge.
Letting someone younger teach you something opens a conversation and shows that you have humility, an interest in learning, and respect for that person.
You also might be surprised by how many people see you as a role model. You don’t have to be a rock star CEO to be able to offer those younger than you a path to which they can aspire.
Are modern elders a new kind of elite?
No. A lot of factual knowledge about how things are done expires over time. Knowledge is at our fingertips, on computers. Wisdom is not.
Understanding patterns and underlying motivations gets better over time as you age. It’s how you get shit done.
Can you share a challenge you faced when you started at AirBnB and how you overcame it?
My toughest challenge is common amongst those of us in midlife: evolving out of my historical identities and knowledge. I’d been the “sage on the stage” as the CEO of my own company but became the “guide on the side” supporting the young Airbnb founders. This required a right-sizing of my ego.
Plus, much of my “fact knowledge”—like how many rooms a maid cleans in an hour—wasn’t all that relevant in the home-sharing world.
But I started to see that my “process knowledge”—how you get things done by understanding the motivations of others—was critical in a company with few people who had organizational experience. Realizing we need to evolve is scary, but it’s also very liberating.
What about ageism?
Ageism won’t be solved just by people 40 and older complaining. If we think only of victimization, we will miss out.
The value of the age-diverse workplace is huge, just like gender diversity and ethnicity. Having a modern elder on the team can help everyone get better at what they do. An older person on a team can create psychological safety and less temperamentality.
In a young team, there’s a lot of competition. The modern elder is often less competitive, which can help people get out of their self-centeredness. It is not that someone 45 to 65 doesn’t want to be recognized. But often that person is less focused on a career path than others on a team.
How can we avoid having winners and losers in the aging game—or as it’s often stated, “successful” vs. “unsuccessful” aging?
The big loser is society if we don’t realize that intergenerational collaboration is the essential trade agreement of our time. Our respective generations often operate like isolated countries. They share a border but don’t necessarily trust each other enough to share their respective wisdom.
So the winners are those that can create pipelines across generations. It’s as simple as understanding that those who are successful at aging are open to learning and evolving until their dying day.
Many are criticizing elders in business and politics for hanging around too long and not making room for the next generation of leaders. Any thoughts on that?
Curiosity is the elixir for creativity and innovation. There’s no minimum or maximum age for curiosity, as people like Walt Disney and author Peter Drucker proved.
Yet, it is true, the longer you’ve lived with a certain identity, the more often you become restricted in your thinking. No doubt, we’re living in a time when we need fresh ideas, so I can’t imagine a better time for political intergenerational collaboration.
When you moved into the aging field, you spent a lot of time finding your own mentors. What was that like?
With each of my books, the subject was not my primary career, so I want to respect those who come before me and learn from them. You can make pronouncements about aging, longevity, and midlife renewal, but if you haven’t done the homework, your fresh eyes (no matter your age) aren’t taking advantage of the wise eyes.
In this book, I‘m suggesting that young people respect the wise eyes. The idea of fresh and wise eyes collaborating is the future of work.