Branson: Experienced workers can be your best asset

I am horrified when people my age express a disdain of modern technology or recall an earlier era as a golden age.

Q: How do you help aging workers embrace a changing environment and adapt to new ways of doing things, and how can employers better utilize their more senior employees?
— Sam Wandati, Kenya

A: As an aging worker myself, I will attempt to answer on behalf of my contemporaries.

When people ask how old I am, my favourite response is, “Younger than Mick Jagger!” No disrespect intended to Mick, who is a friend of mine, but seeing him onstage certainly shows how big a disconnect there can be between doing what you do best and acting your age.

Let’s put this issue in perspective. I was once asked, “How old would you think you were if you didn’t know your age?” My answer was, “Depending on the day, a heck of a lot younger than 60.”

I am sometimes horrified by things people my age tend to say in social and business situations, especially when they express a disdain of modern technology or recall an earlier era as a golden age — usually everyone within hearing knows that the previous period was merely different, rather than glorious. Just this week I overheard a business executive say, “When I was young, we didn’t need computers to do the job for us” — a truly hostile comment.

Such assertions often reveal a fear of change. It can be difficult to keep up, and when a person’s small deficit of knowledge about a new device or software comes to light at the wrong moment, his colleagues may begin to question his abilities. That said, if you want to stay at the top of your game and work smoothly with your younger colleagues, you have to embrace change.

A great first step may be to learn how your younger co-workers communicate with each other. Remember, this is a generation for whom e-mailing is passe.

A few weeks ago, someone told me that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other networking tools are “a silly fad like the hula hoop.” Take my word for it; these new types of communication are most assuredly not fads.

So if your company uses instant messaging or texting for internal communications, set up your own account, then reach out to your co-workers to let them know how to contact you. You may experience a bit of a learning curve at first, since texting involves becoming familiar with a whole new truncated language, but it is easy to pick up.

Indulge your curiosity and playfulness by creating situations where you can familiarize yourself with the latest devices and learn to use them at your own pace. Try setting yourself a challenge, perhaps to reconnect with old friends and co-workers via social networking sites. Or to find out which online games are popular, and then play one. You may have a lot of fun while becoming conversant with cutting-edge technology.

As for how to best utilize older workers’ skills: branding is key, so perhaps instead of thinking of and describing some of your employees as “older” or “aging,” use such words only in connection with wine, whiskey and fine cheeses. A much better way to describe a person who has been working hard for decades is “more experienced.”

These workers are a terrific asset, since history tends to repeat itself. At a company where such workers’ worth is recognized, you are more likely to hear the question, “Jim, in your experience, what might be the hazards of going this route?” — the sort of exchange that helps executives and managers to avoid repeating previous costly mistakes.

I think we may soon see increasing efforts by companies to keep experienced workers on staff. In many developed nations, populations are aging. In the United States and western Europe, my generation — products of the post-Second World War baby boom — represents the biggest, fastest-growing and richest market segment the world has ever seen. In the United States alone, 76 million children were born between the years 1945 and 1964, putting them today between the ages of 47 and 65. In the U.K., this group reportedly holds 80% of the wealth.

A 55-year-old might better understand this important consumer group’s needs than a 30-year-old would.

Finally, in the business of entrepreneurship, past experience is particularly helpful, since building a business is an art. There’s really no right or wrong way to do it, but the more you practise, the more skilled you become.

Now, where did I put my spiral-bound notebook? My children gave me an iPad for Christmas, and they would probably tell me to use that instead, but there are some technologies that I will always prefer.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.