Stereotypes that blind us: discovering the wisdom within

20 June 2023
7 min read

In my last article about hybrid working, I closed with "Obsolescence awaits the exalted prefix 'hybrid.'" Upon reflection, I may have gotten it wrong. 'Hybrid' may well be the key to unlocking possibility, IF we reframed it as hybrid 'life-styled' work, a topic of particular interest to me since I'm on the threshold of a major shift to my lifestyle – a lifetime that has been styled by work. 

After seven extraordinary years at Aurecon, I've decided it's time for me to turn the page and begin a new chapter at 67. I don't see myself as retiring, it's a transition; it's 'aloha' (goodbye and hello) rather than the finality of farewell. 

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When I launched a new phase of my career at 60, many wondered why a design thinker like me would join a traditional engineering company, but I was filled with a sense of youthful exuberance to join an organisation whose strategic intent in 2016 was to become future ready, by design. 

Leadership believed that innovation could fuel competitive advantage; design thinking could become a differentiator; and creativity could be the catalyst to a culture where people flourished. 

I was given a chance to help an organisation liberate its mojo based on my skills, and capabilities. Being 60 meant I had 40 years of professional experience to draw upon – my age was an asset. Regrettably, others have not been so lucky. 

Let's look at the stats

  • 80% of workers aged over 50 have encountered age discrimination in the workplace
  • By 2050, 30% or more of populations within 62 countries will be 60 years old and over
  • 6.3 million cases of depression globally are attributed to ageism
  • 1 in 2 people are ageist against older people 

Sources: World Health Organisation (WHO) and AARP

Even though older workers are credited with a strong work ethic, proven experience, reliability, and loyalty, they are also seen as less adaptable to change, sometimes referred to as old fashioned and lacking technological competence. Perceptions can blind us from possibility. 

Invisibility: an optical delusion

In comic books, invisibility is a sought-after superpower. In reality, it is an uncomfortable, unwelcomed outcome of old age. With my white hair and wrinkles I've witnessed my own invisibility time and again and it's quite disconcerting. Where elders were once venerated, we are now ignored.

In 2030, first millennials will start turning 50, first gen-Xers will turn 65, and first baby boomers will be 85. Populations are aging and youth demographics are declining, so organisations need to prepare themselves – especially matrix modelled professional service firms. 

Consulting and advisory practices spend a lot of time, money, and effort in recruiting young, bright-eyed graduates to work hard, put in the long hours, gain experience so, in time, they'll earn their place on the corporate ladder. But this approach does not guarantee a strong return on investment. Grads tend to leave their first job within five to six years. 

What might happen if a company put the same energy into retaining and training a more loyal albeit older workforce?

Leaders who ignore the shift in demographics do so at their own peril. According to a January 2023 article in Forbes, "In the U.S., the highest growth age group in the labour force from 2010 to 2020 was 65 and older (58%), followed by 55-64 (17.2%), and then 25-34 (8.6%). Effective leaders tap late-career workers for roles they previously may not have considered and offer 'post-leadership' roles that leverage deep expertise and provide opportunities to mentor earlier career workers in a more flexible work environment." 

More than three quarters of Australians over 50 want "to keep working indefinitely and almost 90 per cent of retirees plan to re-enter the workforce." Many of my generation – and there are a lot of us – would welcome the chance to give back, share their wisdom, expertise, and experience. What if organisations deliberately designed a hybrid life-styled work environment as an antidote to the war on talent

Eldership: rethinking competitive advantage

Ageing in Asia is not seen as the end of the road but as a continuance. WOW! 'Continuance' is a wonderful way to frame it. If organisations valued 'continuance' as an essential part of their talent strategy, their investment would shift the battleground. As they say, with age comes wisdom. 

"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it into a fruit salad." 
– Miles Kington

In his book Abilities: Their Structure, Growth and Action, Raymond Cattell referred to two types of intelligence, possessed at different stages in life. First, Fluid Intelligence: the ability to reason, think flexibly and solve novel problems; then over time Crystallized Intelligence: which represents a person's knowledge gained during life by acculturation and learning.

Author Arthur C. Brooks simplified Cartell's theory of Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence: "When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them. When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom."

Any organisation that does not leverage the wisdom within its ranks is… well… unwise.

Stop. Think. Don't let stereotypes blind you

As of 1 July 2023, Australians will have to be 67 before they can collect their pension. In Aurecon New Zealand, Norman Lea, Lead Structural Engineer in our Buildings team, is well over 80 and goes into the office regularly. He still has so much to contribute both in insight and wisdom, and is highly regarded by all of those around him as described by Tracey Ryan, Managing Director for Aurecon New Zealand.

"In Māori society, there are 'kaumātua' who are respected tribal elders and who are there to teach and guide both the current and future generations on tikanga, language, and history among other things. They possess deep knowledge but also comport themselves with humility, honesty and integrity." 

"That is how Norm shows up each day he comes in, with a willingness to teach and pass on his invaluable wisdom to our graduates. People just seem to flock around him like he is holding court. We need more Norms!"

Why is Norm, not the norm? No one can escape the process of ageing but ideally, we should be in a position to choose how to spend our time as we age. We may want to stay close to home or travel the world. Start a new hobby, go back to school or volunteer. Choosing to work should be an option as well. That's why we need enlightened organisations that acknowledge the value in eldership. 

Leaders that see the strategic advantage in 'continuance' and are willing to commit to flexible policies and invest in the places and platforms that will support all people to contribute to purposeful work.

As a designer, I'm compelled to design the future I want to live into. I am grateful for all that Aurecon has given me over this last chapter and appreciate the opportunity to continue leveraging my 'Crystalized Intelligence' going forward – albeit in a different form from the standard 9-to-5. 

So, while this is my last Just Imagine blog for Aurecon, this is indeed not 'the end,' but a 'to be continued.' It's not retirement, it's recalibration. I'm simply turning the page… And I can't wait to see how the next chapter unfolds. 




Given this may well be my last Just imagine blog, I journeyed back to 2016 and reread what I wrote over the years. It seems I've explored a couple of common themes: the need to challenge the status quo, how to embrace the future as an object of our design, to pursue the 'what' after you've clarified the 'why,' and the importance of unleashing the creativity innate in every human being. 

Please have a read and let me know what you think. Your insights will be appreciated. 


Maureen Thurston
Written by
Maureen Thurston

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