Why Age Matters When You’re Setting the Staff Table


We begin by expressing our sadness and dismay over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allowing the Berkshire Museum to sell its paintings. Kudos to Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass for his dogged reporting, and applause for AAM and AAMD for their quick and direct response to the the ruling. Deaccessioning is not illegal. It exists for a reason. It’s also possible for a museum or heritage organization to change focus and mission. In the Berkshire Museum’s case, leadership seemed to say we’re in crisis, but we also don’t want to be who we’ve been, so we’re going to sell our heritage, become something different, and never have to fund raise again. There is a tangled web of leadership questions here. We hope that over the coming months, AAM and AAMD create safety nets for directors who find themselves with boards who want to sell their museum’s prime pieces and cite the Berkshire Museum as their example.


Say the word diversity and most people think race. But as we’ve said frequently on these pages, diversity actually means variety. Colleagues with identifiable differences produce a better more creative product than a homogeneous team. And age is another piece in the diversity puzzle. That means that while it’s critical to have staff of color and LGBTQ staff at the table, it’s also good to mix the very young with the long-tenured. Why? Because since you serve a diverse and changing community and few communities are homogeneous when it comes to age.

And yet, organizations sometimes fail to look at older staff as anything other than a liability. They command high(er) salaries, they have opinions–sometimes too many–and you know someday they’ll retire, but the waiting is driving you crazy. In fact, it’s no surprise that when CFOs and directors look at longtime staff they see dollar signs because in financial terms they represent money that could be saved or better yet divided between multiple new positions.

So what’s the big deal? These folks will retire anyway, and goodness knows there’s a line around the museum workspace of Gen Xers and Millennials waiting to move up. First, it’s hard to generalize. Perhaps you know staff who are genuine fossils, whose sole reason for working is to cross the Medicare finish line. But what about the ones who’ve stored away a wealth of organizational history and narrative? The ones who know where you’ll find all the information you need. Or what about staff who, despite their greying hair, have reached a place overflowing with creativity? Or what about geezers who are models and mentors for younger staff? Is it equitable to let age be the only determinant?

Younger employees sometimes face a similar situation. They don’t get hired because they don’t have any experience, and they don’t have any experience because they don’t get hired. And then, when they are hired, particularly if they’re women, they are frequently patronized and talked over which means they are not taken seriously, which makes it harder to move forward.

The point is only that diversity is about variety. It is about making your staff reflect your community, and it is about understanding and acknowledging that a diversity of lived experience makes for better chemistry and more creativity around the table. (Don’t believe us? Read McKinsey’s 2018 report on Diversity.) A diverse team also makes a group more aware of its own biases because interaction with staff who are younger, older, LGBTQ or people of color challenges entrenched beliefs at work where everyone shares (hopefully) a common goal.

It may be a lame metaphor, but if you need an image for diversity at its best, remember the Muppets. Yes, The Muppets. I heard Frank Oz talk about their back stories Saturday, and one line stuck with me. He said all the Muppets are very different, flawed characters–even Kermit–and yet they made music, had adventures and looked out for one another. You could do worse than to have staff members as different as Miss Piggy and Floyd Pepper.

Joan Baldwin


5 Comments on “Why Age Matters When You’re Setting the Staff Table”

  1. Evelyn says:

    I agree diversity is just what it says. A diverse mix of race, gender, age and even political and moral beliefs. A team that is all “liberal” or all “conservative” is unbalanced.

  2. Linda Jacobson says:

    Thanks for your post on this important topic. Please note that AAM will feature a session “Age: The Forgotten Diversity?” at the upcoming conference in Phoenix!

  3. Cheryl S. says:

    Conversations to understand every view are happening again. It is good to keep this in the forefront and try to make a difference. ‘Age-ism’ has been with us for a long time for both old and young. ‘Diversity’ is the trending catch word and cause, repeating itself as it has for decades. There is no one in this world who hasn’t a bias or dislike of someone, some people or something. Putting people in whatever box based on impression. In the end, everyone brings their own skill…diversity cannot be forced, it must be firmly nudged. Keep nudging.
    Now, a tongue-in-cheek comment… really? using the term ‘geezer’? And mentoring young people. Wow, imagine that.

  4. Readers might wish to consult–& compare the above with–a previous post on this blog “Are You A Museum Baby Boomer? Consider This: Leaving Well is the Best Revenge” dated July 17, 2017 at https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/are-you-a-museum-baby-boomer-consider-this-leaving-well-is-the-best-revenge/comment-page-1/#comment-1051 . An interesting development of thought on this matter!

    • Paul–
      The thought is the same–stay engaged, stay creative, stay informed, don’t tread water–and it’s a thought that applies to all museum folk regardless of age. We retire well when we leave ahead of treading water, when we leave at our peak and people are sorry to lose us rather than saying “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The current post looks at older staff from another vantage point and asks leaders to consider longtime staff’s level of engagement and contribution before hurrying them into their recliners.

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