The Secrets to Relevance at Work – At Any Age

Just about all of us are very concerned about being and staying “relevant” to others in our life and work. It is a great concern for Boomers and older-end GenXers especially who want to keep working and to continue to make a difference in their organizations, communities and the world and to younger generations who may not have proved their work ethic, skills and value yet. In some industries that skew toward the younger generations, for example technology, advertising, and media, even the hardworking Gen Xers are losing jobs or opportunities as Millennials leap past them for promotions and choice assignments. 

Maintaining relevance is a personal mindset and must be persuasively conveyed to the perceiver. Relevance and confidence and conversational competence are often closely connected.  

To define “relevance” as it applies to people at work, relevant means applicable to the situation’s requirements, willingness to change. It relates to fitness, aptitude and compatibility. I would add this definition specifically relating to workers: Being perceived as having the desired skills, knowledge values, passion and work ethic. Conversely, irrelevant is unessential, and think how that feels! 

You can’t stay relevant if you resist change. The resistance is sometimes embedded in organizational culture, particularly when the company has a history of considerable prior success, and the people with the power are protecting their vested interests rather than being open to (often younger) people’s new ideas and skills. 

Too often the pain is caused by stereotyped ageism and pre-conceived assumptions even though numerous studies indicate the superior value of older workers for their experience, greater loyalty, interpersonal skills and work ethic. I frequently hear these concerns at my workshops and talks. 

A survey completed by more than 10,000 people from across the world aged 24 to 80 by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, Professors at the London Business School (2016) and co-authors of The 100 Year Life, found almost two-thirds worried that their skills and knowledge were not keeping up with changing work demands. They found no difference between those in their 30s, 40s or 60s on this issue. It’s even greater now with the rapid increase in new technology platforms, occupations and new industries.

Typical Fears

Each generation may have its own fears relating to relevance. Many Boomers fear being displaced by younger workers if they are perceived as resistant to new ways of doing things or other stereotypes. If you are a Gen Xer, you may fear that you are not adequately prepared for leadership roles as well as not obtaining the support you need to get the work done by Millennials and Boomers. This has occurred especially as younger managers and leaders are given more authority. The Xers may be pushed aside or out.

Many GenY/Millennials fear failing to do everything right. And Gen Z missed a lot of opportunities to learn both technical skills, interpersonal, societal and organizational culture norms during remote education and work during the pandemic and since. Millennials and Gen Z may also face the “relevance” obstacle when perceived by older colleagues as having limited experience and a skewed view of the reality of the work world. 

These fears, whether founded or not, strike at an individual’s confidence and they question how relevant and valuable employers may view them. 

Such employability criteria as experience and seniority don’t hold as much weight as previously. Older and younger generations may be competing with each other for positions, and conscious and unconscious biases relating to age are often blamed. Is the underlying issue chronological age or something else that conveys a notion of how productive a worker will be? (I am resiting the temptation to use Presidential politics as an example.)

This “age” vs. “what really matters” factor arose during an intergenerational challenges at work program I conducted for a university alumni association group. Several people in the audience of executive search professionals and human resource directors agreed with one attendee’s expressed belief that age itself is not the issue in hiring and retaining the older generations, but rather their perceived energy is.

I asked that attendee Don Zinn, a recruiting executive, for his definition of “energy” in this context. His keywords were “high degree of engagement, active participation, getting excited, passion, listening, intensity, sincere interest.” I hear these sentiments from young workers too. 

People may be forced into doing things they never imagined when they experience difficulties in getting back into the workforce after a layoff or voluntary “time out.” In a fictional example, the popular TV program “Younger,” a forty-year old woman tries to get back into publishing, finding no success as her true self. When she lies and says she is 26, she is hired for a good job in the industry and is regarded as worthy of new challenges and promotions. She gets involved with a 26-year old boyfriend, and she has to try to keep her secret, harboring the fear that if people find out, she will be fired – even though her work performance is excellent. 


A brief summary of my recommended strategies and action steps appears listed below. More than anything it’s about skill in developing and nurturing relationships.

  • Be an energy magnet. We relate to people who relate to us.
  • Learn, understand and personalize the perspective of managers, co-workers, and clients/customers of all generations.
  • Strengthen your curiosity muscle
  • Look for the value others can bring.
  • Welcome and encourage unrecognized potential of others.
  • Determine your authentic age rather than one society labels you with. More about our Authentic Age Assessment in Part Two of this Relevance topic)

Related: Why Role Shifts Are More Necessary Today