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Generations at Work: Fifty Shades of Gray

I can remember when I was in my 30s and looked at people who were in their 50s.

Boy, I thought, they have it made: They are at the top of their game at work. Their children are out of the nest. They have time to travel and to enjoy their success.

Now that I am in my 50s, that decade looks different.

I still love facilitating and coaching and working on strategic plans -- and I am learning every day.

At the same time, as I look at the 50-somethings around me, I see an amazingly wide range of life circumstances.

From careers to health to dreams for the coming decades, it’s clear that there are way more than 50 shades of gray …whether your hair is starting to show a little silver or not.

So, welcome to the fourth of a series of special columns this year dedicated to exploring Generations at Work: the Decades of our Work Lives – what it’s like to live those decades and how we can work effectively in teams with people in each age group.

Please share your reactions and experiences.  Whatever your age, we’re interested in hearing how you see your generation at work – and your advice for forging strong teams of all ages – If you missed the newsletters on work lives in our 20s, 30s and 40s, you can catch up here:

At the mid-century mark:  A time to reflect – and seize the day

As I thought about advice for people in their 50s, I remembered that famous line from the classic movie “The Graduate.”


Fresh out of college, the main character is cornered at a party by a family friend with this tip for success in life:


“I just have one word for you,” the older man says with a dramatic pause:  “Plastics.


Fifty-somethings, I just have one word for you and it’s more personal: "Resilience."


By the time we hit our 50s, we have had diverse life experiences. We have learned our strengths and weaknesses. Three decades at work have seasoned our perspectives and given us confidence.

At the same time, by the time we are in our 50s, most of us have also faced challenges, whether they are career, financial, personal, family or medical.

So we move forward with some scars, but also greater wisdom and gratitude – and perseverance. Whether we have faced health problems, job reversals or family disappointments, we have learned the value of pressing onward. We are a resilient group – idealistic, hard-working and conscientious.

Fifty-somethings live at the young end of the baby boom – and make up roughly 20 percent of the workforce.  But there’s a wide range between a fresh 50-year-old and a 59-year-old who may be just three years from minimal Social Security. And there’s a wide range between folks who have relatively good health and financial resources – and those who have not had that good fortune.

Psychologists see the 50s as a time of transition.

In her “New Passages” book, Gail Sheehy calls it “the age of mastery.”

“A generative period” is how sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot describes the 50s as people embark on what she calls “The Third Chapter” of their lives – the title of an her book on “passion, risk and adventure” after 50.

The sociologist David Karp calls the 50s “a fulcrum decade” and a “decade of reminders” about your life’s passage from youth to maturity.

Daniel Goleman – the author of the best-selling “Emotional Intelligence" – says there is something sobering about being a half-century old: For the first time, many people “think of their lives in terms of how much time is left -- rather than how much has passed.”

A new dynamic at work

While the parents of 50-somethings may have retired early to reliable pensions, fewer of us will have that luxury.

Whether it’s our work ethic or tough economic realities, an AARP survey found 8 in 10 people 50 and up are working or looking for work today.  A study released in August by Sentier Research found 55- to 65-year-olds have taken the biggest income hit over the past three years than any age group – a household income decline of almost 10 percent.

The number of 50-somethings-and-up in the workplace has created a series of challenging dynamics, whatever your age:

  • Teams at work are likely to have people spanning as much as 40 years – from 20s to 60s -- underscoring the need for leadership, work processes and collaboration skills that make the most of each individual’s strengths.
  • Eager 30- and 40-somethings may have fewer opportunities for advancement as older workers stay in place. Their frustration and restlessness represents another management challenge.
  • Older workers certainly can’t rest on old skills and keep up in fast-changing times.  From technology to teamwork, lifelong learning is the rule for all ages, say Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd  in their book “The 2020 Workplace.”
  • Some 50-somethings may face surprises at work. Some may discover new doors unexpectedly swing open for them: a mid-50s marketing director just moved to a new job at an agency that told her it valued a “mature” supervisor. The reverse situation is also common: a 50-something presented with a “succession plan” with far earlier expected transition dates than expected.

If you are in your 50s….

If you are in your 50s, you may think of yourself as firmly middle-aged – or veering toward your final chapters.

The lessons learned – and plans for the future range widely.

I have a friend on her third career – from caterer to artist to career coach.

I know someone who started a successful nonprofit in her 40s – and only regrets that she didn’t try entrepreneurship sooner.

And a dear friend said goodbye to her city life and consulting career in her mid-50s – and moved with her husband to a farm.

Top tips for the 50s:

  • Keep up. Keep up contacts, keep up with new technology, keep up with developments in your field.
  • And keep imagining what you might like to do next:  Have a plan for your next chapter – whether it’s another job, part-time work, consulting or something totally new. Many 50-somethings will live into their 80s – and 30 years is a long time to live without a plan.
  • If your identity is your work – period – it’s time to diversify and to cultivate other interests and goals.  From “encore careers” encouraged by Marc Freedman in his book “The Big Shift” to “active engagement” promoted by Rosabeth Moss Kanter with Advanced Leadership Fellows at Harvard Business School, many paths can lead to paid or volunteer work that enriches your life and your community.
  • If your work colleagues span the 20’s to 60’s, focus on what you have in common -- not on your differences. Everyone wants recognition, a chance to grow and flexible schedules, says Sylvia Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation. While younger workers are juggling child-care needs, older works may appreciate flexible time to help aging parents.
  • If you manage teams of all ages, open your mind to the strengths of all ages. “Let young folks run -- they are fearless,” said one a 50-something with experience in the military and private sector.  “Give them deadlines, limits, a destination and get out of the way.  Let them define the journey -- you might learn something.  And if they mess it up, then you will be well within your rights to show them your way.  This is timeless leadership.”
  • Take care of yourself -- your health, your spirit, your relationships. Whether it’s an exercise routine, social network or regular vacations, this will help you handle whatever challenges come your way. A recent study suggests that becoming fit in middle age can “reshape the landscape of aging” by delaying the onset on chronic illnesses, even if people have not exercised earlier.
  • Store acorns.  A recent analysis found at 65 a retiree needs to have saved 11 times their recent salary beyond Social Security.  Another expert recommends a multiplier of 20. If you haven’t saved well till 55, she counsels setting aside 30 percent of every paycheck for the next decade. It’s not uncommon for folks to step up their work to handle college costs and boost savings – extra shifts, consulting or returns to the workplace by stay-at-home moms. A personal issue that can have dramatic financial repercussions: the rising divorce rates in this age group.

And a few tips for folks who work with 50-somethings

  • Take time to fully appreciate their experiences – not just their latest job description.
  • Recognize that there really is something called wisdom gleaned from experience,” said one colleague in her early 60s. “People's brains actually change over time – they are less reactive, more able to roll with the punches than when you are younger, and that quality – stability, thoughtful, wise -- can be helpful to teams and firms of all sorts.”
  • Finally, appreciate that 50-somethings are often motivated by a desire to make a difference and may thrive on new job challenges.

An engineer in his 50s told me he sees his job as “solving problems for other people and being happiest when there are varieties of things to do, issues to address, and people to meet.”

His final challenge, he reckons, is at least a decade down the road:

“I expect I may have to figure out how to replace myself -- and retire into the sunset.”

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