Ageism in the Workplace — Why Teach Entrepreneurship in School ?

A news item recently moved me to tears — it was a touching story of Ageism in America; a story about a 50 something-year-old Event Planner having difficulties finding work in New York; he was abled body, fashionable and this had been his career for many years. He was familiar in many ways. As a designer, in another sphere, I knew so many people who looked like him

  • As someone in my early forties, I stopped to think — is this the predetermined state for us as we age?
  • Are 50-year-old people no longer contributing members of society?
  • Does ones’ mind go to mush and they become obsolete? What’s up with that?
  • How might we prepare people for a time in life, when society will deem them not as capable as the youth among us?

Insane I thought!

Undoubtedly humans are obsessed with youth and beauty. It is us at our aesthetic best. Ageism perpetuates the idea that as we age, so does our value and contribution. Some even go as far as suggesting some of our societal issues are to be blamed on our aging population. We have all heard about racism and sexism and the prejudices associated with them; however, so few of us seem to understand ageism and the growing discrimination of our greying population, and mostly not just on them but on society at large.

Why did I latch on to this particular story? Because it was now a pattern.

I recently spoke with a female mentor, an ex-Vice President of a multinational corporation, who at 55 was deemed too old to manage a design firm; she was let go, though the same company has a slew of men of the same age, or older in other c-level positions. She was a distraught by the realization that she was not wanted because she was “aging and old”” and a part of me felt discouraged, in that very moment about my own future predicament. That was not going to happen to me, I thought. Perhaps having had this personal priming with the female VP’s story, I was in tune with the story of the Event Planner’s, and perhaps as a selfish human realization, I felt the need to write as a means of processing this and similar stories. I have also written on the topic of workplace misogyny, a loaded topic of our zeitgeist. You can read it here. Re-digressing. I ask:

  • Is this our inevitable state when we age?
  • Can this man not do something else?
  • Why can’t he do this on his own?

These were my rushing thoughts as I listened to the Event Planner’s fearful voice, relaying the story of making ends meet, even with a partner who shared living expenses. I wanted to give him a hug. I was moved and saddened and this pattern of encounters made me think — this is a growing epidemic.

I spend a lot of time at Starbucks and have had the opportunity to meet many of locals, especially older ones, not working and using Starbucks more as a community networking space. Over the course of 8 years, we have bonded over our collective annoyance of students returning to our university town, and / or wondering if new faces were permanent, and would use up the limited seating, that we have called “office” or “hangout” for so long.

In this time, I have heard many stories — mostly the same as this female ex- VP and this NYC Event Planner. There seemed to be, what I will call, a stumped Baby Boomer generation, barely making ends meet or looking for work. And most of this is through no fault of their own- the by product of our economic circumstances. And as I write this it slowly dawns on me this cannot be normal. I t my local Starbucks, I recall the 55- year old, injured police officer, now training dogs to make ends meet — she reminds me of my own step-mom in exacting profile; the ex-bookstore owner, who lost her business and can’t find a job, the overworked nurse trying to find other work as she almost fifty and needs to slow down. I wonder how did they all get here? Are there ways in which they can take control of their lives? Why are they so stuck? Where did society fail them into thinking that at 55 they were worthless? I had a hard time processing as I empathized with their dire respective predicaments.

I spent my formative years in the Caribbean, where every child is a born entrepreneur; there simply is no choice — from the child picking mangoes in the backyard to sell to tourist off the highway — to young boys carving out wooden art to create hand painted art that tourist readily buy in droves — to the 13-year-old girl, making cupcakes on the side, working alongside her parents in an apprenticeship manner, the stories are so numerous. Years later, I know many of these adults, and one thing they all have in common is an enduring entrepreneur spirit, still in business for themselves, in their early forties, not worrying how they will survive old age.

I took this perception of myself as an immigrant to task to my large number of immigrant friends and we admit that there is something about the state of being an immigrant that perhaps gives us a slightly different perception

As the child of a Canadian immigrant, also an immigrant myself, entrepreneurship has driven us. According to US numbers, immigrant minorities own 15 percent of all U.S. businesses (MBDA.gov), accounting for $591 billion in revenues. Further, according to the organization Women Moving Millions, women entrepreneurs start businesses at one-and-a-half times the national average and currently 40%, producing nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues. Immigrants are very similar in their ambitions; in the US they own 18 percent of businesses, generating more than $775 billion in revenues. Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of my favourite writers, advises young entrepreneurs to imagine that they themselves are immigrants, because “new immigrants are paranoid optimists.” And that we are. While we are keen to advance educationally, entrepreneurship is never far from our minds.

Further, the sad state of affairs in all of this is that when we extend this institutional priming, many immigrants and other entrepreneurs found little support with the banks, when starting their many businesses. The attitude of prove you can before we lend is so pervasive, it is no wonder many fall in line and we match to the beat of the corporate drum.

I relay this side story to advance the position that we have failed our children, as parents, educational, work and financial institutions, suppressing our innate human entrepreneurial spirit and instead obliterating crushing our natural paths and instead molding populations to meet only one need — the corporate need. The idea that many of us, end up in non-entrepreneurial workspaces, is by no means a natural human condition and so it is no surprise that, as we age, many are doomed to be thrust aside for younger programmed workforce who will readily accept half the wage — if calculated is eight times their worth. This makes so little sense that it begs some thinking. While society and businesses innovates, individuals don’t and remain the long term losers of the deal. When was the last time your child came home with homework on how to innovate?

Never!

Instead the focus is on teaching, for example, short term technology shortages that benefit companies for the moment but not able to sustain human existence long-term. Our institutions have failed us in the capacity to think creatively and ambitiously. So, it is no doubt that as we age, we lack the foresight to imagine ourselves outside the realm of what it takes to carry on past our “careers”.

Schools need to do better at producing the entrepreneurial doers, makers and innovators that our world needs to collectively sustain our later years. Schools, however, do a great job at flushing out, for example, JavaScript coders, and the many other programming languages, until the new language comes along, making obsolete older learners. And while some schools are catching on, the vigorous practice of teaching entrepreneurism is more crucial than ever before.

Thomas Friedman also advocates for inspiring young people to create the companies that will provide long-lasting employment for citizens. He writes also from the point-of-view of the Baby Boomer when he asserted, in his New York Times piece “Need a Job? Invent It”, that having students graduate high school “innovation ready” assures that they receive the critical-thinking, communication and collaboration skills that will help them invent a job. I wholeheartedly agree.

Entrepreneurship education benefits students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, because it teaches children to think “outside the box” and nurtures those unconventional talents and skills, that have been overshadowed by the mainstream idea of work. Moreover, it creates opportunity, ensures social equity, instills confidence and pride in children, as well as stimulates the economy, among other things. In the final analysis, it enables us to think of living fuller lives beyond those years deemed “abled” by society, giving us fuller control of our own survival.