If anyone can make aging cool, it’s Chip Conley. He is a walking, talking embodiment of disruptive innovation who has made his living, and personal brand, as an entrepreneur and an original thinker.
In 1987, he was in his 20s when he founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a California-based chain of boutique hotels, and was CEO until selling it in 2010. Several years later, a chain of events caused him to reinvent himself, into what he now calls a “Modern Elder.” He’s written several successful books, but his latest, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, may ultimately become the one with the longest-lasting impact. As he points out, the topic of aging and the concept of a Modern Elder does not only pertain to those in the second half of life. Everyone (ideally) is headed to this state of being, and the more one is prepared for it, and tries to understand it, the better.
Many different, yet ultimately interrelated things had to happen in order for this book to become a reality. Among others: the Great Recession of 2007-8, which caused serious problems for his hotel business. The realization that he was getting older (he’s now 58), with all of its ramifications. Some of his friends had committed suicide. More people were searching for meaning inside and outside the workplace. The phenomenon of evolving ideas of personal and professional identity. Waves of baby boomers either retiring or considering it. The sharing economy and the breakout success of Airbnb, the startup begun only a couple of years before he sold JDV. A near-death experience, which he describes in his LinkedIn post “I Died 10 Years Ago Today & My Life Started Over.”
A major part of the book is about his unexpected career shift post-JDV: five-years, beginning in 2013, at Airbnb, initially part time advising and mentoring, and eventually full time as Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy. There are also many brief case studies of people who have thrived, or are trying to thrive, in the second half of life. And the modern elder concept is completely intergenerational. You are mentoring and being mentored, sharing your wisdom and experience but also learning from those younger than you. This includes people who may be considerably younger, such as Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, who wrote the Foreword, and is a profound presence throughout the book. On page 38, Chip writes: “Brian reverse-mentored me in all kinds of ways.”
Chip did his homework in crafting this book. He is open about what he knows and doesn’t know, and how he fills in the gaps. He reaches considerably beyond his experience at Airbnb, though that is a major component. If not for his stint there, this book wouldn’t exist, or would be substantially different. He has a BA and MBA from Stanford University, and an affinity for reading scholarly research articles, and helping to interpret them for a non-specialist readership. He met with luminaries in the study of aging, such as geriatrician Bill Thomas, co-founder of the Eden Alternative and author of Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life; and Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and author of A Long Bright Future. He also interviewed Andrew Scott, a professor at the London Business School, and co-author, with his LBS teaching colleague Lynda Gratton, of The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.
Not everyone can or will want to make the trek to Baja. But as Chip demonstrates in the Appendix and elsewhere, there are many ways to learn how to make the most of the second half of life, whether that means continuing to work (full time or part time), volunteering, some form of retirement, mentoring, learning, teaching, or combinations of all. He writes on page 84, “If you’re stuck in a rut and find yourself cursing millennials, you may be longing for a time long past: the time when elders were venerated and powerful. That era ain’t coming back, so it’s time for you to start slipping into the costume of the Modern Elder who is both a mentor and an intern.”
The world of aging/longevity/elderhood (or whatever you want to call it) is fortunate to have Chip as an ambassador and enthusiast. What may not have seemed appealing to many people is now starting to seem full of options and possibilities, along with the inevitable challenges. His success in business and as an author gives him credibility in the business world, which could be a big factor in how fast the Modern Elder concept is accepted. Nonetheless, things are changing, and fast. As he writes on page 44: “It’s above my pay grade to propose a retirement system redesign, but one thing is obviously clear: the expectation that full-time retirement will start in one’s early- to midsixties is likely to be a thing of the past, or a privilege of the wealthy. And that has many of us a little on edge.”
One of the big takeaways from the book comes in the Acknowledgments, where he thanks many people who form a vast and intricate support system. Constructing, cultivating, and maintaining our own support systems, inside and outside the workplace, is of great value and open to everyone, at any stage of life.
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