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Ageism Goes Both Ways

Ageism appears to be alive and well in our industry.

In just one day, I experienced it from opposite perspectives, and it turns out that no one age group is immune from criticism and the lumping of individuals into stereotypical buckets.

Generational Gaps on Display

First, I was in a meeting listening to an ensemble of tenured advisers describe the behaviors of their millennial colleagues. They characterized the younger generation of advisers with the usual labels—entitled, impatient, lackadaisical.

More pointedly, these older advisers dug into the millennial advisers’ expectations, noting that they wanted the security of a salary but resisted opportunities that come with taking risks. All of the tenured advisers remembered the stage of their career when the only thing they could rely on was what came from rounds of cold calling. “I remember when . . .” was the most frequently used phrase of the group.

All this talk stemmed from the tenured advisers’ need to evaluate the firm’s compensation policy. The younger advisers wanted salary increases after being in their position for just two years and still not producing any revenue. And one who had just five years under his belt had recently asked when he could expect partnership. The older group, used to a certain way of “earning one’s stripes,” was appalled at such a request.

Grumblings on the Previous Generation

Later the same day, I was in another meeting, this time with a group of young advisers who had their own generalizations to make. They characterized the baby boomer advisers as “milking” the organization of profits as they neared retirement and being technologically inept.

The younger advisers believed that the senior advisers should want to retire once they hit 65. At that age, the thinking went, the senior group would of course want to begin transferring ownership of the firm and fade into the sunset.

As the younger generation saw it, tenured advisers who hung around instead of retiring were full of excuses for sucking up all the income despite the fact that the younger advisers were the ones now doing all the work. The result, in their view, was a profit-sharing benefit plan with no profits going their way.

Moreover, these younger advisers lamented, the senior advisers needed to be “babysat” from a technology perspective, but they were closed-minded when the younger generation offered any marketing ideas, especially for anything related to social media.

What Gets Said Behind Closed Doors

Stereotypes can be a helpful tool. They can help us initially get our brains around vast amounts of information. How can you best reach a certain group of prospects, for example, based on their age, location and risk profile? Stereotypes are a starting point.

But stereotypes are dangerous when they lead to groupthink. When young advisers get together and spread the perception that certain characteristics automatically apply to all tenured advisers, it’s just as divisive as when tenured advisers get together and spread the perception that certain characteristics automatically apply to all millennial advisers.

It would seem wise—maybe even a breakthrough—for all of us to let the stereotypes go. We could instead recognize that tenured advisers are the ones who have built significant successful practices. And see younger advisers in their roles as the ones who will one day take over these businesses and hopefully improve upon them. Beyond those two positive perspectives, we could view our colleagues as individuals—and not representatives of a particular age group.

In fact, we don’t know what happens next or what the next generation will bring. What we do know is that ageism and divisiveness have persisted across generations. Perhaps we all need to chill out a bit!

Joni Youngwirth_2014 for web
Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass. She is a regular contributor to the FPA/Journal of Financial Planning Practice Management Blog.