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Later life careers, demographic shifts and Hollywood’s “The Intern”: A discussion with Suzanne Cook and Lisa Taylor (Part 1)

This fall, Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro graced the silver screen in a lighthearted Hollywood interpretation of what goes on in an intergenerational workplace, where millennials and 70-year-old interns mix.  At the same time, CERIC (the charitable organization) which runs ContactPoint) announced funding for the Redirection: Work and Later Life Career Development project, which explores how an aging population is reimagining retirement.To understand how the workplace is changing, as people choose to work past the age of 65, out of circumstance or the desire to continue actively pursuing something that brings them fulfillment, we spoke to two experts in the field: Dr. Suzanne L. Cook and Lisa Taylor. 

Suzanne L. Cook is Adjunct Professor at York University in the Department of Sociology and the Faculty of Health. She is also Faculty Fellow at the Trent Centre for Aging & Society at Trent University. Her research examines occupation and labour force issues with a focus on older workers and later life career development. She coined the term “Redirection” to identify a new stage of career and will be leading the CERIC-funded project investigating redirection and second and third careers among Canadians age 50 and older.Lisa Taylor is the founder and President of Challenge Factory, and organization that helps employers and employees navigate the opportunities presented by a demographic shift in the workplace. She explains this new career stage opportunity as a Legacy Career®. Lisa has advised and written on the subject of shifting demographic trends, strategic business opportunities and organizational change.


Question 1: The term “older workers” is often used in the career development field. What does this term mean, and is it changing/has it changed over the past few years?

Suzanne: Language is always changing, and this is certainly the case for this topic as society struggles to adapt and adjust to socio-demographic shifts. Language needs to change because individuals over the age of 50 are very different than before, and they bring different things into the workplace. I see people referred to as older or mature workers and I also see specific ages mentioned to try to help identify this group of individuals.

Lisa: Language really does matter. The dynamic shift is very much tied to the fact that a new life-stage is emerging so we don’t necessarily have good language yet. This gets talked about in North America, in organizations that are working in this area all the time. There isn’t good language that captures exactly what this cohort should be called or what this stage of life should be called. There isn’t uniform agreement, and so as a result, we use qualifiers. We know what workers are and so we’ll say “older workers” or “younger retirees.” We’ll qualify words that already have meaning, but what is really meaningful is the fact that we’re struggling with language; it is just an indication that there is an actual new structure or phase of life emerging, and that has implications on careers and the workplace.

But it has implications in other places as well. The other shift I see taking place is that some organizations are taking a much stronger stance to fight back against unintended ageism in language. Australia has had a very strong campaign against anti-ageism where they’re trying to raise awareness of what actually crosses the line, because we’re not necessarily used to thinking about the 60-, 70- and 80-year old population as being engaged, productive and a part of our workforce. So there is language we use unintentionally that causes us to reinforce relationships that are from the past or the way that people would engage in the past. There is a phenomenal activist in the US named Ashton Applewhite. Her site is called “This Chair Rocks” and she is all about combating unintended ageism in language, like using terms such as “older workers,” to give people an identifier that’s tied to the fact they are old, as opposed to productive.

Question 2: Without giving away any spoilers about the Hollywood movie, “The Intern,” do you think that it’s a case of art imitating life that Hollywood has decided to take on the topic of an aging workforce?

Suzanne: The reality is that there are other individuals in the position that Robert De Niro finds himself at the beginning of the film; however, they are not getting out of this situation or they are unable to find their way out. They want reinvention or Redirection and do not know how to achieve it. The film portrays a new social demographic shift that we’re experiencing, so it is an issue, it is a problem. It opens up the possibility for discussion and dialogue to talk about these issues and get them out there.

Lisa: The movie is important in two ways: (1) a film takes time to develop; it’s not like someone can decide to do something and three, six or even 18 months later there’s a feature film that’s making the rounds around the world and it has the well- known cast and crew like what this movie has. That takes time. So what is meaningful to me about the film, without going into the specific elements, is that Hollywood recognized years ago that the mass market would be interested, engaged and willing to purchase tickets to something that talks about 70-year-olds in the workplace and the dynamic that they play in an intergenerational relationship with 30-year-olds.

In the discussions that I have with corporations and companies, what that really says is, if they don’t have an intergenerational strategy, and if they don’t have Legacy Career® paths for 70-, 60- or 80-year-olds – if they don’t have career paths that actually span our full productivity lifespan – then they are now behind Hollywood, and their staff will go to the movie and start demanding HR strategy coming out of Hollywood movies, instead of out of sound business practice. I think that is remarkable. For the organizations that are on the leading edge and have recognized this talent pool, this reinforces that there is actually interest and demand in the market. Hollywood believed it would be there and this movie is the way to tell one of those stories in a fictional sense.

For those companies that haven’t started to think about it yet, they need to actively consider: is there opportunity for their business to consider what Legacy Career® paths might do, and where they may be able to capture new, newer, or ignored talent pools for business benefit. What is the opportunity that they’re missing by being a little late to the game?

Suzanne: Lisa mentioned the intergenerational theme in the film. The film portrays the vibrant intergenerational workplace that can be reinforced and supported, encouraged and fostered. This is a Hollywood storyline, but it serves as an example for people to say, “okay, go figure this out – this is what is happening now.” The film depicts this beautifully, yet the current reality is that intergenerational conversations and interactions are missing from many workplaces and organizations in today’s society. This needs to change

Question 3:  What effect do you foresee this film (or any pop cultural reference to older workers) having on employers, employees and society in general?

Lisa: What we’re talking about, working longer, and having our working life expectancy catch up to our actual life expectancy, and thinking about full life productivity, is first and foremost an activity of shifting minds and realizing that things have changed. And so, the power of something like a film or any pop cultural reference, is when it’s done in the context of opening people’s minds to the fact that things may not be the way that they always thought they were going to be, or that models have changed, or the way that older Canadians can engage differently with the economy then they did in the past. So it’s really just the mindset and getting the conversation going that is, I think, the most powerful part of how pop culture can actually help in what calls “the talent revolution” that’s taking place.

Suzanne: It’s about helping people realize this, so it’s creating awareness, enlightenment, and maybe inspiring some people, hopefully.

Question 4: Do you think that most employers see older workers applying for new positions in the same light as younger employees?

Suzanne: Organizations and employers play a key role in regard to the “experienced workforce”. This is the next area that requires attention. I can share that my next project – right after I complete the two that I’m working on – will be looking at employers. There is an issue with regard to age discrimination, stereotyping and ageism and there’s a need to shift attitudes and perceptions. Through Challenge Factory Lisa is currently conducting talent management work with employers.

Lisa: There is ageism in the workforce, but it’s not everywhere and it’s not every employer. Even inside of organizations, there can be very enlightened executive teams that understand the importance of sound workforce strategy, but haven’t yet gotten to the level of training the managers that are actually holding the job interviews, or talking to people about career paths, so there’s gaps.

So ageism is very real, if you look, for example, at the Globe and Mail article that came out at the end of September – you can always predict the comments – there will be comments that come from people who are disheartened and disillusioned: they’ve been unemployed for a long time; they’ve been trying to get in and have been told that they’re overqualified; they’ve been told that they’re too old; there are certain sectors that are harder than others. So that’s certainly something that people face, that’s real, and that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.

I think that the biggest gap from the employer perspective is that managers haven’t been trained on how to think about the 50+ workforce, how to have career conversations with employees that are 50+, or how to identify next step career paths so that they don’t just see employees that are over a certain age “hanging out here for a couple of years, waiting to retire.” I think that’s a pervasive mindset that is out of date and I think that there needs to be more articles like this one, films like “The Intern,” and training programs like what we have at the Center for Career Innovation that helps shift the mindset and give good solid data, like the study that Suzanne is doing, to demonstrate that that’s an out-of-date way of thinking.

Suzanne: Definitely, we need to be doing more work within organizations, enlightening and educating, and creating awareness. Lisa’s work with organizations is helping to educate employers. Attitudes and perceptions take time to change and we are still at the beginning of this shift. This is the case whether we are talking about managers and leaders at workplaces, workers of various ages or broader society. There is a great need to understand the nuances and the situation within Canada – the unique experiences of people in a more systematic research-based way – so I’m thrilled to be able to engage in this CERIC-funded study of the topic. This study is a critical step.


Read part 2 to find out more about myths and misconceptions in the workplace, how career practitioners can effectively assist clients in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, job trends and what the terms “Redirection” and Legacy Careers® are all about.

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