Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

What happens when we stop looking at careers through the lens of age?


Published on January 17, 2019

Our new normal in a cross-generational, job-hopping, career-changing workplace.

To borrow a phrase from the “Golden Girls” grand-matriarch, Sophia Petrillo: Picture it. The U.S. 2008. The Great Recession. If you’re a millennial fresh from college your career ambitions have floundered because you can’t find a job. If you’re a member of Gen X, your company has downsized leaving you unemployed and unable to find a comparable position. If you’re a boomer, you might be realizing your retirement fund isn’t actually enough coin to get you through to the End of Days. And if you’re Gen Z, you’re anxiously watching your parents discover their long hours haven’t made it certain they can keep a roof over your head.

While the Great Recession was just over a decade ago, it has drastically changed the landscape of today’s workplace and the priorities of today’s workers. Your office may now have as many as five generations working alongside each other. This means our views around late starts, job hopping, career shifts and leadership are evolving. This isn’t a bad thing. When we push our expectations around age aside, it allows us to focus on individuals and their actual abilities.

The late start could be the right start

Mariama Eghan, a member of the Dropbox employment brand team, is one of the aforementioned Millennials who graduated into a sparse job market in 2009,“I had to take anything that I could get. So, I didn’t have a ‘real job’ with benefits until I was two years out of college. I got a later start versus kids who were coming out of college already having an offer or friends whose dad knew someone so they could start a full-time gig right out of college.” 

But for Eghan this challenge came with an upside. The position she took right out of college wasn’t her dream job, so it made her more open to venturing down a different path into an entirely new field. “Even though I started my career late, given the newness of the field and where and when I was able to break in, I feel like I’m further ahead than most. When I got to Dropbox I was seen as an expert in knowing the things that I know because of the company I came from allowing me to expand on that knowledge and because of the field being pretty new to the industry.” 

This trend is only going to continue, with predictions that the majority of today’s children will grow up to work in jobs and fields that don’t exist yet. And until they’re old enough to punch the clock, it’ll be brave career-shifters like Eghan populating these roles and challenging our assumptions that age and experience are inextricably linked in the workplace.

How much does age really matter?

In a survey* we recently completed regarding different generations in the workplace, we found:

  • Older workers are more likely than millennials to prioritize slowing down to do their best work versus going fast to do more.
  • Older workers are more likely to prioritize time spent working in uninterrupted flow versus helping co-workers even if it means interrupting their flow. 
  • Younger workers are more likely than older workers to trust the opinion of upper management, whereas older workers are more likely to trust workers "at the edges," or closest to the actual work.

The last stat is particularly interesting because it points to a willingness for younger and older generations to trust each other based on their roles within an organization. Leadership qualities can be found at any age and within any role.

Beyond potentially leveling the leadership playing field within organizations, having more generations in the workforce has also urged workplaces to be less youth focused. Eghan’s describes her previous tech company as feeling like a college campus 2.0, whereas now she sees a broader range age of age groups being catered to when it comes to work events, and even benefits.

“There were events where you feel like ‘I’m too old for this’ but on the other side, there were events that were completely 100% family focused. There wasn’t always a good middle ground for people who weren’t fresh out of college versus people who were well-established with their families.” Now, she feels like the employee office culture she’s part of is more inclusive of everyone. 

Views on making a career change: internally versus externally

Eghan has observed that Dropbox is among employers that are open to shifting career norms,“There’s a whole idea of being able to grow your career with us, and recognizing what people are doing today is not what they’re going to be doing forever or even want to do forever. There are a lot of great stories here about employees starting in sales and now being an engineer or things like that.” Ryan Cahalane is one of those stories.

Cahalane spent his time in college working in recruiting and, as a new grad, thought he’d like to do that as a career. A year into his role in recruitment in Dropbox, he became interested in making the move to sales. Traditionally, an employee would need to switch companies to transition into a new career (or even possibly return to school for more education). 

He felt supported enough to make that move within the company. “I never hesitated to make my interest known to my recruitment manager at the time or some of the existing hiring managers within the sales organization. I know a lot of organizations as soon as you express interest in another role aren’t as receptive to those transitions or as willing to entertain those conversations.” Cahalane had no issues identifying a great support system of mentors to help him get up to speed in his new field.

While Cahalane made his career leap internally, Eghan acknowledges that job hopping is fairly common these days, particularly within Silicon Valley. She points out it’s one of the few ways individuals who’ve had a late start career-wise can recoup some of the financial differences between their salaries and younger generations. 

But that doesn’t mean their leaving has to be a total loss for the corporation. Eghan says, “Companies don’t want their employees to leave that quickly, but that’s just the reality.” She believes companies recognize the importance of retention, but can still be open to gaining as much from an employee as possible, as well as giving them as much as possible, during their tenure.

Whether it’s external or internal, these days—when as many as 33% of workers describe their jobs as boring and our stints in the workforce are reaching beyond 65—second (and even third) act careers are becoming increasingly common. It’s not hard to look to mainstream culture or even one cubicle over to find someone at any age who’s successfully made the shift to something new. Contemporary wisdom seems to be it doesn’t hurt to explore your options

Looking for more ways to shift your perspective in the workplace? Busting the productivity myth can lead to more meaningful work.

*Survey consisted of a statistically representative sample of U.S. knowledge workers, conducted Q4 2018 by an independent research firm. Study pending publication Q1 2019.