You're As Young As You Work

MINNEAPOLIS | Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Jim Cantalupo had been CEO of McDonald's for little more than a year when he died of a heart attack last April at age 60. Who knows what was on the minds of McDonald's board when they picked their next CEO? Maybe they thought that a vigorous younger person could be the best insurance policy against another jolt to the CEO slot. In any case they chose a 44-year-old named Charles Bell.

After less than a month on the job, Bell learned he had cancer. In less than a year he was dead. Bell did great work for the short time he was at the helm. Still, youth is no guarantee that you will live out your employment contract. Bell's replacement? The 60-year-old James Skinner. How do I read that move? Go for the quality. Forget about age.

When I was in Athens for the Olympics last summer I noticed something unusual. The gold-medal winners in many events were older than the winners I had seen four years earlier in Sydney. That wasn't true for every competition, but some of the numbers will knock your socks off.

Here's a sampling of the 2000/2004 Olympic comparisons. The baseball gold medalists average 11/2 years older. In canoe/kayak slalom, the winners were two years older. In soccer, the average winners age was more than two years higher. And - hang on to your saddle - the average age for the equestrian dressage gold medalists was nine years higher. It jumped from 35 to 44.

It's easy to assume that championship athletes are forever younger. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt speculated on the age trend before the 2004 games: "The shift has helped to alter athletes' and scientists' understanding of when the human body peaks. For years, people assumed that the early and mid-20s marked the last time that athletes could run their fastest or jump their highest." That's proving not to always be the case.

What does this all mean for folks who jockey desks, not thoroughbreds? The perils of age often are a matter of attitude: How many times have you not applied for a job because you figured this was "younger people's" work? Have you stopped learning about new technology? Have you dropped subscriptions to trade journals? Do you spend your laptop time playing electronic backgammon instead of surfing for industry trends? And do you justify this all by saying, "I'm just punching the clock till they put me out to pasture?" What sort of company do you keep? Do you socialize with younger coworkers? Do you know who the rising stars are within your firm or your industry? Do you stay in touch with them? Great champs have super sparring partners and pacesetters. Sedentary is as sedentary does. Mix with young to stay young. Have you done something serious about starting that business you always dreamed of? A few years back, a 53-year-old guy named Ray Kroc did. He called it McDonald's. Mackay's Moral: A lifetime of employment might improve your odd of a longer life.

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