Chip Conley was 52 years old when he joined his first startup. That startup happened to be Airbnb and he was brought in because of his deep industry knowledge from launching the hotel business Joie de Vivre. Old enough to be the founder’s father, Conley seemed an odd fit — until he recognized the competitive advantage older workers bring to a company full of younger workers: emotional intelligence and “process knowledge.”

“Process knowledge is the wisdom you have about people,” he said at Signal 2019. “You understand organizational savvy of how to get things done, understanding the underlying motivations of everybody in the room, and especially the people not in the room that we have to get something through.”

But what about the gap between older workers and younger digital natives? At least in the pandemic era workplace, “It wasn’t clear whether moving to Zoom would be an advantage or disadvantage for elders,” says Conley. “I’d say it’s been, net net, a positive because cooler heads with more EQ and wisdom have been quite valuable during this emotionally-laden time and the Zoom technology has leveled the playing field of participation in meetings.”

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for everyone. “I think what’s been lost are the intimate personal connections that are often part of a mentoring relationship,” he says. “If a younger person had an older mentor pre-Covid, that relationship could still potentially flourish during this WFH period. But it’s hard to embark on a new mentoring relationship exclusively using video conferencing. Not impossible, but just not as good.”

Elders’ role will continue to expand in the post-pandemic environment, particularly as AI takes over more work tasks, when companies will need more “wisdom workers” — something that absolutely defines elders.

Learn more about the future opportunities for elders in Conley’s full Signal 2019 presentation below: