Magazine

What's Age Got to Do with It?


In politics—and business—being curious and embracing change are what matters

What impact do you think John McCain's age will have in November? — Paul Bartlett, Lake Mary, Fla.

You've come to the right place. One of us happens to be the founder and president of the Life Begins at 70 Club. The other—well, she attends all the meetings.

We're kidding, of course, but obviously we can't help but be somewhat biased on this topic. Our lives, and the lives of many friends, have only been enriched by the passage of time, with its myriad encounters and experiences. But that doesn't mean we believe Senator John McCain's age is reason enough to elect him. John McCain should be elected (or not) on the issues. Because age isn't a virtue—in politics, business, and life in general—all by itself.

By that, we mean age is generally pretty useless if it's not accompanied by an open-mindedness and curiosity about contemporary times. Andy Pearson, the former president of PepsiCo who passed away in 2006 at the age 80, for instance, loved to have his grandchildren explain rap music lyrics to him. Indeed, Andy found every kind of cultural trend relentlessly fascinating and relevant—and as a result, so was he.

Age also needs to be accompanied by a willingness, and even eagerness, to change. We recently heard Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon, suggest that leaders (informally) fire and rehire themselves from time to time in order to freshen their mind-sets. Now, at 48, Andrea is still plenty young, but her approach to reinvention is actually the hallmark of the most effective "older" folks we know. Case in point is K.P. Singh, the Indian real estate developer who, at age 76, has just expanded his business into, of all things, an international cricket league—because, he says, it will teach him "all sorts of new things." Or take Rupert Murdoch. At 77, his passion for traditional media opportunities remains unabated, so too his interest in what's next. Chris DeWolfe, CEO of social-networking site MySpace, recently told us that Murdoch has his sleeves rolled up at his new purchase, always asking questions, always pushing to learn more.

Age, we're basically saying, is a state of mind. That is, of course, putting health issues aside. Because vigor does matter; when it ebbs, so do presence of mind and availability. But with vigor, the playing field is level. We've all known people who were born old. Forty years ago, one of us (Jack) knew people his own age who were donning vests and smoking pipes to look "executive"—and they liked it! Just recently, we met an extraordinarily talented 27-year-old executive in Istanbul who told us she would never take a global assignment because she so loved living near the Bosporus River. Shy of 30, she was already stuck in a comfort zone.

So when you're looking at someone to fill a job, be it John McCain for President or the 72-year-old candidate you're interviewing, forget age as a number. Check for curiosity about the world today and readiness to change with it. Then check for wisdom.

Now, wisdom is something of a loaded word because some older people would like you to believe that it comes with the territory. But wisdom isn't just knowledge of the past—it's the thoughtful processing of life's patterns so as to better inform future decisions. It's perspective. It's judgment.

The poster boy for wisdom is, no surprise, Warren Buffett. At age 77, he's seen enough economic cycles, government policies, and company dramas to make most people jaded. But Warren is anything but. He uses his experience to make smarter investments than ever, all the while explaining to the world what he is doing and why, with the bare minimum of "been there, done that" attitude. In fact, Warren would probably be the first to tell you that, when it comes to business, he feels like he was born yesterday.

So, to your question, do we think John McCain's age will spark debate in the coming general election? Yes. But should his age matter? We'd say no.

Look, from where we sit—which is not in rocking chairs, by the way—age isn't something to fear. Indeed, with the right attitude, it can be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new website at www.welchway.com For their podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm

Toyota's Hydrogen Man
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus