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Age-appropriate pairings

BusinessWorld logo BusinessWorld 2/15/2017

A couple having dinner and giggling together quite frequently is usually not worthy of undue notice. If they're about the same age, even if the woman has Eskimo eyes, what's to fuss about? However, if they have a considerable age gap, whether they are of the same sex or not, then eyebrows reach for the ceiling. Does one giggle this wantonly with someone related by blood... say a son or a niece?

There is a quick rush to judgment that this couple with a generational gap (sometimes more than one) may not be quite a wholesome twosome.

The phrase "Dirty Old Man" is seldom applied to an elderly male with unkempt hair in a crumpled soiled shirt. It is a social slur having to do with a man advanced in age with lewd intentions, usually fulfilled, directed at a much younger person. The big age gap between two individuals even in an innocent activity such as dining (with clothes on) invites an equal measure of revulsion and envy.

When an elder man's attention is solicited via text (do you want me to shampoo your dog?) the DOM slur may not apply, as this service does not constitute an inappropriate activity. The old man, this time in lower case, is merely a potential customer that needs hair care for a pet. Age difference here does not count as the situation is that of a service provider (pet care) and a customer (pet owner). Of course, the language may be coded, and not intended literally.

The age advantage in a social setting applies as well to females. In the case of the older female matched to a much younger male (previously the domain of dance instructors, now more of yoga and life coaching) the term used is zoological in nature, with the current nomenclature, for reasons unknown to me, being "cougar," a feline predator heavily availing of cosmetic treatments. Why a lecherous female is not called a "Dirty Old Woman" or DOW is a mystery.

DOM can be viewed as an ageist slur. In the workplace, such a tag denotes that productivity for one so designated is not work-related, implying undue attention to the workers more than the work. Whatever happened to the concept of mentoring where an older master guides the career and skills enhancement of a young and fetching ballet dancer? (Your tutu needs pressing.)

In business, it's easy to tell organizations that respect age presumed to embody experienced leadership. Just check out how old the CEO is. Those still actively running a mature business beyond the usual retirement age consider succession plans in the same category as earthquake drills.

The determination of the appropriate age for leadership is a clue on how number of years in life or in business is regarded in an organization.

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When senior management regularly throws around disparaging phrases like old fogies, dinosaurs, and expressions like "the notebook was a stationery during his time," to draw laughter, rest assured that this is a young culture with a CEO in his early thirties. On the other end of the spectrum, if the phrases in vogue in the boardroom are angry young man, wet behind the ears, milk on his lips, raw and impulsive, jumps before he thinks, and spends all of his time in the gym... well, you don't get a prize for guessing what kind of organization that is.

Can the DOM model work in business? Can an old man be put in charge of a young group to give it direction, lend it gravitas and get the organization through a rough patch of financial reversals and eroding market share? This particular coupling (no pun intended) of age and vitality in a corporate setting does not draw smirks if it works. It can even be a successful business model. Still, even in this age-hospitable climate, the supervising adult needs to be unobtrusive and prove his added value. He can skip the parties.

As in other May-December pairings, the generations can part ways when the company is back on its feet. The old leader and his young troops take different paths, having learned from each other and achieving a shared success.

Still, the generation gap whether social or corporate is best left unexplained. The proffered justification anyway is sure to be dismissed with a knowing smile -- nice tie, Sir.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.

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