My father-in-law recently turned 110, which makes him officially a super-centenarian. The experience he shares with us is invaluable. Don Paco, as we affectionately call him, has witnessed so many transformations of our world and turning points in history, I feel blessed to have him in my life.
This remarkable milestone coincides with further generational changes in our family. My daughters have grown up and are now studying in different cities. Of course, I miss them greatly, but this new-found independence has also given me more free time and the opportunity to restructure my working day. I’m about to reach half the age of my father-in-law, and these changes have made me reflect on both my own professional path and on the wider demographic shifts.
Are we ready for an increasingly aging society?
I’m sure there are many other people who are in a similar position, and who have become one of an unprecedented 5 generations within the workforce. Moreover, our global population is seeing dramatic transitions: Not only are more and more people being born, but the number who are expected to live to see 100 is also expected to increase in the future. It is projected that 1/3 of all the babies born in 2013 in the UK will reach the age of 100, for example.
But is the world actually prepared for this aging society? Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination based on age – what we refer to as ageism – remain widespread in society. Nearly 2 out of 3 workers ages 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, according to a 2018 AARP workplace survey. Now, in 2021, we also hear that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected older people, the assumption that they are all frail or dependent is not just factually incorrect but also harmful. The World Economic Forum comments that, in fact, many older people are essential to society and contribute to the economy in terms of both paid and volunteer work.
It’s therefore time to change the narrative and recognize how older adults can make a valuable contribution. I have been asking myself whether society has lost the capability to listen to older people and learn from them. Again, this makes me reflect on my father-in-law’s experiences: He, for instance, witnessed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 which tragically caused entire families to disappear. No doubt there are some lessons we can learn from that experience that can be used today, to avoid repeating the same mistakes again as we try to navigate our own modern-day pandemic.
I also read an interesting article recently, which highlighted the importance of older workers, pointing out that we still have members of our workforce who started their careers before the widespread use of computer systems. These older workers therefore have valuable expertise in manual operations which are still relied on today. These skills are, among other things, indispensable in helping economies withstand the damage caused by cyber attacks and natural disasters such as earthquakes, heat waves or floods.
The power of belonging and continual learning
I passionately believe in the value of listening and learning. In my role as Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) at Siemens, I continually invite people to share their experiences – using this to educate myself, and ultimately to act and build more inclusive teams. And all across Siemens, we are striving to create an environment in which everyone can belong, contribute and grow. This is because we believe that #BelongingTransforms, not just for our people, but for our customers and society. We also believe in a diverse workforce that reflects our customers and the communities in which we operate. As our populations become more multi-generational, it’s ever more important to enable older employees to add their value in the workplace.
At Siemens, we are also building an environment in which we care for our people and support their growth. In our fast-changing world, continuous learning and remaining curious are essential if we want to stay relevant and sustainably employable as individuals and successful as companies. This is why we are helping our people to acquire new skills. And it’s also vital for older colleagues: As the WEF article states, for older adults to continue to thrive, we must ensure they have access to new technologies.
My father-in-law is a great example. He is not only digitally fit – he reads the news on his tablet, video-calls his family and friends, and streams his favorite TV series – but he also keeps intellectually fit, for example he still regularly interacts with the tenants in the properties he owns. And I have taken this continual learning approach to heart. I seized the opportunity to expand my role at Siemens, becoming CDO alongside my role as Chief Cyber Security Officer last year, and have taken an incredible amount of energy from learning, building a network and putting together a new strategy over the past 12 months.
What are my takeaways from my father-in-law’s 110 years?
I believe that companies should encourage their people to work for as long as they feel able to contribute. I also see inclusive, multi-generational workplaces as a great place to learn, share experiences and grow – and as an environment in which all generations, both young and old, can be valued. As my father-in-law has shown me, there are no limits when you want to contribute to society. And this is also why I feel that the most productive years of my career are ahead of me. With my kids grown up, and with all the personal and professional experience I have accumulated, I believe the upcoming decade will be one of the most rewarding so far.
What else has Don Paco taught me? His personal attitude has also revealed the secret to a long life! In every situation he overcomes any anxieties with positive thought. For example, if one of his acquaintances is running late, he simply says, “No worries, they’ll be here.” Or if he’s sick, he says, “It’s just a cold and it will pass.” Ultimately, alongside all the professional learnings I have mentioned above, I take away this one: be positive, and you’ll be happy.
I feel very strongly that we each have a responsibility to drive the change we want to see in the world. I’m motivated to ensure that future generations, like my daughters, don’t face some of the ageist attitudes that we see today and that they follow in my (and Don Paco’s) footsteps in believing that age is more than just a number, it’s a mindset. So, don’t focus on the number of candles on your birthday cake, stay relevant and stay positive – your best years could still be in front of you!
What kind of life do you wish for as you grow older? What steps and actions should we be considering to combat ageism and make sure that everyone belongs? Let’s discuss!