Nothing IS Something

Next to the work I do in my company, one of my focuses over the years has been supporting women in advancing their careers and achieving gender balanced leadership. To this end, I recently co-authored and helped publish a book entitled ‘Ready for Female Leadership: The Future is NOW’.

In the past few years, I’ve expanded my desire for an ‘all encompassing’ equitable and inclusive workplace and society. This embraces not only all the ‘isms’ we commonly hear about but also one which has taken a backseat to all the others: ageism (I call ageism the ‘forgotten child of DEI strategies’ – hopefully a useful oxymoron).

In 2020 and 2021, I was fortunate to be a guest speaker for Vivian Acquah’s ‘Amplify DEI’ summits. She asked me a question in our pre-summit interviews: “What would you tell your younger self about the topics you spoke about (Discrimination and the Stress Response / 50 plus As Change Agents)? And why?”

My response to her was as follows, though perhaps not verbatim: “Every action has a consequence which falls somewhere on what I consider the scale of good or bad. Doing nothing is also doing something and that is bad. We all need to play a role to ensure racist and biased behavior becomes intolerable behavior.”

In replaying this back to myself recently, it made me think of an essay I wrote in the late 70’s. I had joined the Canadian Armed Forces as a military nursing officer. During basic officer training, we had to write an essay and share this to our group. A high ranking officer would grade us on poise and confidence. Nothing exciting came to mind as a topic, so I decided to write my essay entitled ‘Nothing is Something’. Here follows a portion of that essay. How I was rated by the attending officer is a story for another day…

The dictionary describes ‘nothing’ as:

  • Not any thing : no thing
  • Indicating the absence of meaning, value, worth, etc.
  • Of no importance or significance

Now let’s think about all the euphemisms we use for the word ‘nothing’ in our everyday language.

That person means nothing to me – which should tell the listener that this person is of no significance to me. Actually, it speaks volumes about the impression this person has made on me.

Nothing doing which means definitely no. If I hear a definite no then this is the opposite of yes, which tells me I’m not going to get what I want – and that is something.

Then we combine it with the word less. The idea is nothing less than revolutionary. [= the idea is revolutionary]

If you come to the party empty handed you have nothing in your hands, which can be very significant to the person hosting the party.

Has anyone ever told you that you have nothing to fear? Just how relaxed did this make you feel?

And when you see a wrong being committed against someone or society in general, doing nothing is tantamount to doing something, which could have very dire consequences.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

It’s this last one for which I hope you’ll sit up and take notice. How often have you let a minor or major transgression pass without calling it out, personally or professionally?

The cost of doing ‘nothing’ is incalculable: mentally, emotionally and financially to our society as a whole. Why would we perpetuate something that has so many negative consequences? Is it to preserve a false sense of superiority or privilege, which only serves to harm us? If so, how ridiculous is this?

We can all do something, even some little thing, to ensure an equitable and inclusive society. What will you do?

Age Should Not Define Us! just as with any other ‘ism’

If there is one thing research is showing, it’s that the 50+ generations are needed more than ever, to continue contributing their value to society. “We no longer want to be on the sidelines but playing an active role in building our future, the economy and making a positive contribution to society! In fact, we owe this to ourselves, to our children and to the society that desperately needs us now.” Ingun Bol, Founder of Move in2 the Future and the Wize Move Society

“There’s an entire culture out there telling us that getting older means becoming less relevant. Luckily, we’re old enough to know better. The wisdom and experience you have to offer has never been more important in the workplace, or in the world. So let’s unleash it.” Modern Elder Academy website

Older workers are the workforce of the future. The world’s population is getting older more rapidly than had been predicted earlier. But does this mean we’re aging quicker? According to journalistic researcher Camilla Cavendish, in her book Extra Time: 10 Lessons for Living Longer Better: “Only if you cling to out-of-date notions of what it means to be 50, 65 or 80.” Our mid-life years are expanding and require new individual and organizational mindsets.

With the advances in neuroscience, we now know our brains are capable of learning and developing until the day we die. It’s called neuroplasticity. This is good news because intergenerational workforces are becoming increasingly necessary. Less young people are entering the workforce. That’s a fact. Employers are realizing they need to invest in their 50+ers, so their companies will maintain the skillsets and knowledge they need to thrive.

The stereotypical image of the 60 – 65 year old jumping for joy to get their hands on a new set of golf clubs doesn’t resonate with ALL potential retirees. Please don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy golf, when I get the chance to practice it. However, many of us also want the fulfillment that comes from having a purpose; from continuing or even changing our careers.

Let’s bust some stereotypical myths

We’re more emotionally stable than our younger colleagues, which is a good thing when critical thinking is high on the World Economic Forum (WEF) top skills list for 2025.

We aren’t on our way out. Giving attention (training/meaningful work) to a 50+ employee, means they are four times less likely to leave in the next five years than a twenty-something.

Do we have less energy than someone at 40? Lee Iacocca, who became Chrysler chairman at 53, famously quipped that “I had people at Chrysler who were 40 but acted 80, and I had 80-year-olds who could do everything a 40-year-old can”. Putting people in the same ‘old age’ category makes no sense, when some of us are healthy and energetic upwards in our 80’s. We are, as the Japanese say, ‘young-old’: old in years but having the characteristics of youth.

We aren’t taking jobs or jeopardizing the careers of younger people. Economists have debunked this. By continuing to work, we actually increase a nation’s GDP. If we have more money, we can spend more as well. One of the effects of this extra spending is it creates new jobs. As well, according to a FastCompany article written by Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, by 2025 the majority of Americans will be reporting to a younger boss.

We’re perceived to be unproductive but when old and young work together, errors decrease and productivity rises. Customer interactions often improve the older we get, since we also develop greater emotional intelligence, leading to greater productivity on this level as well.

Another perception is we are set in our ways and therefore are passed over for training or career progression. However, we can learn new skills and develop new mindsets. We may learn differently than someone younger but the neuroplasticity mentioned earlier, ensures our brains are more than capable to learn.

We tend to be more resilient (another 2025 WEF skill). Life has already given us (many) challenges. We’ve survived and perhaps even thrived. What’s one more? We’ll navigate it.

What else have we got that organizations need to thrive?

Experience and expertise (not easily replaceable).

We make great mentors.

We can help train the workers of tomorrow.

How can an organization’s leaders ensure they support their mature workforce?

Provide us with opportunities for learning and career progression. Don’t stick us in a back office, where we can twiddle our thumbs until we’re pensioned.

Understand we want work that is personally meaningful and intellectually stimulating.

Depending upon our age and situation, realize we may need more flexible working arrangements.

Create a work environment that is age-friendly; where we feel supported and valued. Intergenerational workspaces are a thing of, and for, the immediate future. Educate both the younger and older generations on what their needs are and how they can be relevant for each other. They can help make me digitally savvy for example, while I can teach them about resiliency strategies, emotional agility, and building their empathic skills.

“The modern elder is appreciated for their relevance, not their reverence, because they’re as much of an intern as they are a mentor.” Chip Conley

Image courtesy of Canva

— Published originally on August 13, 2021 for