Have you become too old to work in digital? If you are over 40, there are more than a few digital leaders who may think so — people who think you are past your sell-by date. While the average age of digital marketers has increased over the past several years, it’s still an industry that seems to favor the younger set.
I am well over 40. Over 45, in fact. And over the past year, I have seen far too many remarkable talents shunted aside — people passed over for new roles or unable to find new jobs. And more than a few of them have told me that ageism is a significant cause of their troubles.
Hey, America is a youth culture, and marketing is right dead center in that obsession. So my shrieking about ageism is unlikely to do an effing thing to address the issue.
But perhaps there are ways that we 40-plussers can examine our own behaviors and personal styles and make changes that dramatically reduce the odds that we will be victims of ageism. We can make changes, in fact, that prove we are essential to the furthering of this industry in the years ahead.
This piece is intended to drive just that sort of personal self-examination. As such, it is not a rose-scented anti-aging cream that will transform us into bright-eyed 25-year-olds. Instead, the idea here is to review some common bad behaviors to identify the things we do that make us seem less relevant. Then to nip those behaviors in the bud.
Here are seven such behaviors to begin your soul searching.
You complain about the young
Many over-40s spend a great deal of time taking the personal inventory of their younger coworkers. We say they are lazy, sloppy, self-entitled, and far too needy of feedback and reinforcement. Is it surprising, then, that younger decision makers make the same sort of unfair generalizations and criticisms about us?
Let’s start by debunking the “Millennials suck” meme. Millennials manage to juggle multiple work tasks all day long. They grew up in a world where speed and responsiveness are more important than methodical thoroughness. If they are agency side, they probably juggle six to a dozen accounts when you and I had only one or two to think about when we started.
As a group, they expect more promotions and feedback than did we, but perhaps it was our expectations that were made too small rather than theirs too big. After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Next, let’s remember that judging individuals by group stereotypes demeans them as individuals. After all, it’s wrong for us to be collectively judged as clueless dinosaurs. The same applies to our younger cohorts.
Finally, let’s remind ourselves that if we have contempt for the skills and abilities of younger people, we shouldn’t be surprised when they reflect that contempt.
You isolate yourself
The effectiveness of marketers is limited if they fails to listen to the panoply of perspectives that surround them. This is particularly true in an age where each generation has such remarkably different life experiences, expectations, and world views.
By staying in the thick of an organization — soliciting perspective, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, helping (and learning from) people with fewer years of experience — we stay relevant, improve our marketing acumen, and gain the admiration and loyalty of those around us.
Most of us benefitted from mentoring in our early days as professionals. We have a responsibility to continue that great tradition with the next generation.
You build a personal fortress
In speaking with several HR pros for this piece, I heard that many older execs in organizations try to create centers of personal control in order to make them essential to the organization. The thinking is that they can’t fire the only person who really understands the email program, for example.
While this might have been an effective self-preservation strategy in the past, the dynamic nature of digital is constantly undermining the value of static skill sets. Fifteen years ago, the 50-year-old guy who held the keys to the direct mail channel probably enjoyed a measure of job security because DM was such an important business channel. But these days, relying on your expertise in a silo is no assurance of safety. First, the need for integration across silos has become acute. Second, no individual can stay abreast of developments, even within a narrow specialty. You need to be connected to others to keep your skill set and knowledge fresh and relevant.
When you put up walls, or simply don’t make an effort, you remove yourself from the nucleus of your organization and grow progressively less relevant with every passing day.
You read instead of experience
Keeping up with the trade journals is one thing, but actually experiencing digital innovations is quite another. There’s a reason why it (used to be) called interactive. There is no way to understand Pinterest without having an account and spending some hours on it. Twitter seems ridiculous when you read about it. But using it creates the personal revelation of its incredible power.
Now, there are dozens of platforms launched every week, so it would be impossible to try everything. But that truth does not absolve you of the responsibility of using things that are gaining traction in the market. For those of us who remember body counts on Cronkite, keeping up holds extra challenges because we have more ideas and experiences jammed into our brain cells already. But to be part of a medium whose goal is to transform society, you need to break out the metaphorical shoe horn and constantly stuff more ideas and experiences in.
When I interview people, I often start by asking them how they use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. “I don’t” is not a good answer for any of these questions, regardless of your age. By contrast, it is perfectly OK not to be a constant user of these platforms. But not having even tried something that millions of people turn to every day is a sign of industry irrelevance, whatever your age.
Ultimately, a marketer of any stripe needs to have real empathy for the lives, opinions, and experiences of people. You cannot understand how Pinterest is changing someone’s life without using it. No journalist can make it clear, and no focus group summary can provide clarity. Just as it is natural to wonder about the fit of a prospective traditional media person who doesn’t watch TV or read magazines, so too is it natural to question the commitment of digital people who don’t have the curiosity necessary to immerse themselves into its most important innovations.
You aren’t mobile enough
Perhaps the biggest shift taking place in digital today is the transformation of the web from a PC-based medium to a mobile-based one. Actually, in many parts of the world, that transformation is yesterday’s news. All over Asia, the percentage of people accessing the web from their phones and other mobile devices is far higher than those using full-sized computers. In the U.S., that shift is expected in the very near future.
Because older digital folks didn’t get their first phone when they were 10, we can be tempted to view digital concepts from a PC-centric perspective. If you aren’t regularly trying new apps or exploring websites from a tablet or phone, that temptation is routinized into a narrow and outdated worldview.
First, change your behavior. Remember that experience drives perspective in digital. Force yourself to start from the perspective of mobile digital access. Find personal behaviors that can be enhanced with mobile apps. Stay abreast of the mobile ecosystem. If you are interviewing, shake things up by first discussing the mobile implications of something. Then shift to PC. If you are part of a team working on a new project, start with mobile.
You don’t act the part
A blasé personal style undermines your perceived relevance when you are surrounded by young people filled with a passion for driving change. A couple of decades ago, you might have been able to slow down at some point — to coast until retirement.
But the days of the 40-year man are way behind us. In a world where having six, eight, or 10 different jobs over the course of one’s career is not at all unusual, you need to maintain your drive to innovate and excel.
If you’ve ever been tempted to say, “We’ve always done it this way,” I hope you’ve been able to restrain yourself. If not, it probably makes sense to start looking for an empty box in which to store your personal effects for the escort out of the building.
In digital, precedent is something to be attacked, not defended. Digital innovations up-end the status quo and the people who vainly try to enforce it.
You don’t look the part
One’s physical appearance changes over time. Gravity and all that. But in an image business, we need to be conscious of the impression we create. People use the totality of our physical selves as a heuristic to decide whether we will fit in.
The wrong personal style, clothes, work style, etc., can put unfortunate distance between you and your colleagues. If you work in an office where flip-flops and ironic T-shirts are the norm, wearing a tie starts you off in a hole with a shovel of dirt on your head.
Sheryl Sandberg is a great example of someone who has transformed her personal style to fit a new environment. Contrast how she looks and dresses now to her earlier days as head of sales for Google. From couture fashion to denim, and with her jeans and T-shirts, she creates the impression of someone who fits as a leader of Facebook.
For women, being judged by appearance is a lifetime reality. Women know not to walk into a W+K interview in a Brooks Brothers suit and an Aqua-Netted bob reminiscent of a Republican county committeewoman. For men, the importance of “look” can be a bit of a surprise. But the decision to be a part of digital must bring with it a willingness to be flexible with things that we might prefer to leave as they are.
Ageism is outrageous, unfortunate, and very real. I know far too many people my age and older who are out of work or have been placed in unchallenging low-relevance roles. We can complain about it, or we can fight it. Success in this battle ultimately requires that thousands of us show people the error of their discriminatory ways by combining our invaluable experience with a willingness — actually an addiction — to change, stay relevant, marshal multiple generations, and lead.
If you stop for a second to reexamine the behaviors outlined above, it’s easy to see that they are not limited to the more mature set. The one thing that is certain to life is that we will all grow older over time, so these are behaviors and issues that we would all do well to address — whether we are 23 or 63.