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My Time by Abigail Trafford

The Age Edge

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page HE01

There are some workplaces where age is considered an asset. In the White House, for example. Dick Cheney is a good spokesman for why bosses should hire the older man -- or woman.

Experience is the obvious reason. As he explained in the vice presidential debate, what George W. Bush "said he wanted me to do was to sign on because of my experience, to be a member of the team, to help him govern. And that's exactly the way he's used me," said Cheney, 63.

But there was something more. It was also attitude: "I think it's worked in part because I've made it clear that I don't have any further political aspirations myself. And I think that's been an advantage. I think it allows the president to know that my only agenda is his agenda. I'm not worried about [what] some precinct committeemen in Iowa were thinking of me with respect to the next round of caucuses in 2008."

For a moment, ignore the campaign spin in those words -- or whether the more experienced master has impressed his agenda onto the less-experienced dauphin. This is not about Cheney's ideology, but why age can be an asset in the workplace.

It's good for a boss to have a few people around who aren't climbing up the ladder -- because they have already climbed it. They have already proved themselves. They have completed the adult tasks of earning a living and fleshing out their r?sum?s. They need to keep working, but what drives them may be different from the mind-set of a younger worker.

Researchers in human development note that a change in attitude may take place as people move into their later decades. Instead of striving to get ahead, they want to make a difference. Instead of gaining a promotion, they want to have an impact and leave a legacy. Instead of winning, serving. Instead of me-me-me, us. Instead of competing against colleagues, they may be more cooperative.

But they need opportunity and new challenge. And they usually need a paycheck. In a way, Dick Cheney is not so different from Denny Leo Brown, who works in a car dealership in Alabama.

Four years ago, Brown changed jobs and in January 2001 started working at a car dealership in Phenix City. He'd come from a manufacturing job, so it was a "culture shock, of course," said Brown, 50. But he needed to work, and the dealership "is a place to go and keep grits on the table."

Brown is a salesman and gets paid by commission. His hours are 9 to 7. He likes the new opportunity. "You get back what you put into it. You can conceivably make more money than you were -- or at least keep your lifestyle going."

And his age is an advantage in a field where there is a lot of turnover. He brings stability and established work habits. "A work ethic is not necessarily something we're born with," he said in a telephone interview. "Someone who's been somewhere and done something has that work ethic. You're going to be reliable. The hours aren't going to bother you."

He's in a different stage of life. He doesn't have the financial obligations and time pressures of raising a family. He's been married for 29 years. His wife works for the county. His grown daughter is about to have their first grandchild. "It doesn't cost me as much as it did. I'm ready to slow down a little bit."

He's a team player. For example: A younger salesman who was having trouble making a sale. "He was losing her," Brown said. So he came to help. "I ultimately closed the deal for him and gave him the deal." He is not after the boss's job. "If you took someone who was chomping at the bit and wanting to climb the ladder -- the managers would have to keep eyes on the back of their heads," he said.

He is pleasantly surprised that, at least in his experience, car dealerships value the older worker. He estimates that about one in four salesmen is over 50, with many in their sixties. And they are good for the bottom line. "Consistent sales are going to come from the older group," he said. Younger salesmen may be flashier, and score more sales in a month. But older salesmen are more stable; they know how to "ride the ups and downs better."

The big difference between Cheney and Brown is how they got these jobs in which they are valued for their age. For Cheney, being selected for the vice presidential spot was a career capstone.

Brown got downsized and had to look around for something else. Selling cars is a "meanwhile" job. He is still trying to get back into the manufacturing sector. But that's not where older workers are valued, he explained. To him, downsizing means one thing: "I can let you go and hire someone younger for less money." He's also found that employers are reluctant to "hire someone with age and experience.

In the last four years, Brown has worked for several dealerships. He is elated that "some places have wised up and are taking advantage of the wisdom and experience that comes with time on the job," he said. But between the White House and the car dealership, there is a vast wasteland where older workers are being squeezed out. "I think businesses need to wake up," said Brown.

Maybe the vice president could work on putting that on his boss's agenda.?

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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