In less than 15 years, people aged 65 and up will outnumber those 18 and under for the first time in U.S. history. This major demographic shift presents a good opportunity for reevaluating our stereotypes and negative assumptions about getting older. Aging comes for us all, so it’s time to tune into its upsides, particularly for women.
Right now, older women face a double challenge of ageism and sexism, and a common response to these obstacles is to feel uncomfortable as one ages and to try to hide it to the extent possible. But in fact, being older is a tremendous advantage for many women, particularly women in leadership positions, and as our society shifts toward an older workforce, it’s extremely important for women to embrace their age — to both spare themselves unnecessary grief and also to reach their greatest potential.
The image of the lonely, cranky senior simply doesn’t match reality. Instead, we tend to be happier as we age.
This advantage isn’t simply a feel-good rallying cry to give older women a self-esteem boost; it’s clear from data gathered by data scientist Catherine Hicks, in partnership with my firm McClennan Masson and Tetra Insights, from surveys of more than 1,000 American men and women aged 18 to 90 aimed at gaining insight into the later stages of life. What we found through a blend of research scales and open-ended questions is that older people are happier than other age groups and far more productive than commonly believed.
Indeed, the image of the lonely, cranky senior simply doesn’t match reality. Instead, we tend to be happier as we age. The older adults we surveyed (in their 60s, 70s and 80s) were more likely to report feeling calm, optimistic, cheerful and full of life, and less likely to report hopelessness, restlessness, nervousness or sadness, than those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The results are supported by a body of scientific literature showing that happiness is roughly U-shaped, dipping at mid-life and increasing as we age.
This is good news for leadership, because who wouldn’t want a calm, optimistic boss? These traits aren’t simply plusses, but actually provide the bedrock for solid leadership. By being the center of calm, leaders inspire those around them to do their best work because everyone is operating from a place of trust.
And as many of us have experienced, emotions are contagious, as are mental states, whether positive or negative. When leaders operate from a place of confidence versus insecurity, the ripple effect brings teams together rather than pushing them apart. Less stress and doubt at the top is good for the entire food chain.
That means employers should look to retain older workers rather than pushing them towards retirement or seeing them as replaceable by younger staff. According to a United Income study, the number of people staying in the workforce above 65 years of age has doubled since 1985. And people are even starting new careers late in life with the extra years in front of them; for instance, they are heading to coding bootcamps in droves.
In my case, as a female executive in my 50s, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel more prepared to deal with hurdles than in my younger years because I’ve accumulated enough life experiences to know myself well, and that’s an advantage when times are difficult. Age has made me a better leader because I know not to get too hung up on the ups and downs of life, or to let those bumps in the road destabilize my team. Instead, I keep forging ahead, more confident that things will work out in the end.
There is also often a sense of purpose that comes from having lived longer and, particularly, going through loss, something that’s increasingly likely to be the case the older one gets. Experiencing the death of a loved one can put things in sharp relief, offering perspective for the road ahead. One participant from our survey, Carol, 68, said that after losing her mother, “Everything in my life has to have meaning now.” That attitude can help galvanize those around you.
Since 1900, we’ve been gifted 30 extra years, 15 of which are likely to be productive and generative.
In addition to the benefits of aging, it’s also the case that many perceived downsides don’t survive scrutiny. For example, contrary to the close-minded elder of popular culture, we continue to cultivate curiosity as we age. According to the results from our survey, when asked about their comfort with openness and uncertainty, people in their 60 and 70s were just as curious as their younger counterparts — though those in their 80s did become more risk averse. Sharon, age 68, told us, “I’m working on my bucket list. I take cello, piano, I’m engrossed in musical theory.” She finds it rewarding to explore new territory and see the progress she’s making.
Since 1900, we’ve been gifted 30 extra years, 15 of which are likely to be productive and generative. You don’t have to work until your final days, but you also don’t have to disappear into the golf courses of Florida. Because of this additional time, the norms we set up around aging — fading into obscurity as a little old lady or a senile man with a cane — should be what we put out to pasture.