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Aging & Society

Old Guy at South By

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I was a little nervous heading into the South by Southwest (“South by” for short) in Austin, and for good reason.

At 70, I would be among the oldest, if not the oldest, registered participants.  I wondered if I would look – and feel – out of place.  I wondered if my experience would resonate with this crowd. 

“South By Southwest” is a massive, annual, youth-oriented festival of innovation – the latest in music, technology and ideas.  Over 100,000 people descend on the Texas capitol over a festive and exciting 10-day period. 

I was there to share my experience as Pfizer’s Senior Intern, the position I occupied last summer in a workplace experiment engineered by Sally Susman, Pfizer’s head of corporate affairs, after she watched a popular movie, “The Intern.”  The internship had proven a remarkable intergenerational experience for Sally, me and dozens of college-age interns at the company. 

The interns – on the cusp of entering the workforce – were openly eager for mentoring.   

But the bigger surprise was how quickly many members of the professional staff asked to be mentored as well.  My schedule filled up with half-hour sessions.  One young colleague wondered whether she should stay in the specialty she loved, whether or not it led to promotion. Another employee asked for advice on how to handle a personality conflict with a colleague.  Still others asked about the pros and cons of switching departments or even careers.  Many shared frustrations with the struggle for a work-life balance. 

The mentoring, in fact, also had clearly struck a chord with the millions who watched videos or read about it here on Get Old.  “More companies ought to do this,” was a typical comment.  And so, we were at South by Southwest to share our experience and what others could learn from it in a panel we titled: “Boomer Millennial:  When a Retiree Becomes an Intern.”

As Sally and I roamed through Austin’s Convention Center, trying to get a feel for the place, we couldn’t tell the tech billionaires from the strivers and wannabe’s.  I was struck by the large number of 20-somethings, but I also noticed plenty of 30-, 40- and even 50-somethings.  Not so many 60-somethings and no one (that I could see) 70 or older. 

Against the advice of conference organizers, who encouraged casual attire, I’d decided to dress the part.   At registration, I wore a blue blazer, grey slacks and fashionable sneakers; I knew the latter was true because my son Brandon, the fashion maven in the family, had told me so.  All around the conference we saw promotions with shock value, impressive technology and over-the-top visuals.  I worried my panel would pale in comparison.   

Our session went well, moderated skillfully by David Zax, the reporter who had written about the summer for Fast Company, an online business magazine.  Joining David, Sally and me, was Sophie Spallas, a junior at USC who’d been in the summer intern class.  The audience was more attentive than I had expected. 

When mentoring came up, a number of people started taking notes.  Yes, I said, I was touched that so many professionals on the staff asked for time with the Senior Intern.  They hungered as much as the millennials for someone neutral, seasoned and outside the chain-of-command to talk about issues in their own careers and lives.

My wife, Patty, jokingly calls this phenomenon, “Rent a Grandpa.”   

Afterward, people lined up to ask questions.  One woman, a fashion marketing manager based in London, asked if I’d be willing to speak with her about a career change she was contemplating; we exchanged contacts.  Another woman said she was nearing the end of a life-time career in the CIA; she aspired to a role like senior intern but was uncertain about describing her background.  A reporter from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest daily newspapers, quizzed Sophie and me in detail about the mentoring. 

Others asked how the program could be replicated elsewhere.   

Sally said she felt it had to be an organic effort, initiated by a sponsor and intern willing to trust each other.  She thought our model was pretty good, but more important was getting the idea out there.  I suggested that it could be adapted by non-profits and small businesses, not just corporations.  “Older people have a lot to offer – they just need to be asked,” I said.        

After the panel, Pfizer organized a Facebook Live broadcast, the company’s first ever.  I was thrilled to see that we had over 91,000 views – another sign that the Senior Intern adventure had touched far more people than I ever could have imagined.    

And a few days later I was tickled when the Munich newspaper published a detailed article about our panel discussion.  “The more young and old talked with each other, the more they realized what they had in common,” the reporter wrote.  “At the end, it felt like there was no age difference at all.”

The headline? “Intern Grandpa.”  

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