Chip Conley

Chip Conley describes himself as hotelier, author, social alchemist, disruptor, student, sage and has now added “modern elder” to the list. After selling Joie de Vivre, the hospitality company he started at 27, Chip found himself at age 52, in a new role at Airbnb, no longer a CEO and reporting to someone 21 years his junior. The experience of being in a new role, in a new company with new norms and lingo, shaped Chip’s thinking about how older workers can contribute to and grow in a rapidly changing workplace. His new book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, describes his experience and those of many others as they adapt a new mindset and take on a new role, the role of the Modern Elder. We had a chance to interview Chip, a member of the Center on Longevity’s Advisory Council, on his experiences and his new book.

Your new book is titled Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, what exactly is a “Modern Elder”?

In early 2013, I joined Airbnb because the small tech start-up needed hospitality leadership for the company to grow into a global travel industry force. Cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky also asked me to be his in-house mentor. But, at 52, I’d never worked in a tech company before and I quickly learned that I was twice the age of the average employee and I was a naive intern when it came to tech lingo and thinking. In order to make a difference, I needed to see I was as much a learner as I was a teacher. With power cascading to the young faster than ever before, I believe Modern Elders can help accelerate the relationship skills of Millennial digital leaders. Good judgment, unvarnished insight, emotional intelligence, holistic thinking, stewardship: these are hallmarks of the Modern Elder and growing more valued in the modern workplace.

How is the role of a “Modern Elder” different from traditional mentoring or managing?

40% of us have a boss who is younger than us. At Airbnb, mine (Brian) was 21 years younger. Historically, wisdom flowed from old to young, but the physics of this wisdom waterfall now moves in both directions. So, I believe the Modern Elder needs to strategically edit and evolve their past knowledge and identity, show up with a beginner’s mind in areas that are new to them, and, once they’ve done this, double-down on their collaboration and counseling skills as 75% of Millennials say they would like more mentoring especially around people issues.

You mention that to be an effective “Modern Elder,” older workers need to make themselves relevant. What does that look like?

Elders of the past were offered reverence. Elders today find an audience only if they have relevance. The increasing pace of change and innovation means that those in midlife and beyond need to be able to articulate their wisdom in a way that is meaningful to those who are younger. There’s an old saying, “Knowledge speaks, yet Wisdom listens.” One of the relevant and important roles of the elder is to give presence and attention to those younger…to listen not just to the story, but for the story so that we can apply some age-old relational wisdom to modern day problems.

How do companies benefit from fostering an environment that supports “Modern Elders”?

For the first time, we have five generations in the workplace so the future will require less age segregation and more intergenerational collaboration. Many tech companies have come to realize their older workers have internal cultural wisdom and emotional intelligence (EQ) that can benefit their brilliant young technologists while the younger employees can offer digital intelligence (DQ) and external cultural awareness. Excuse the stereotyping as this doesn’t represent all employees, but older workers can offer EQ and younger workers can offer DQ in sort of a generational potluck that can benefit everyone and the company. Smart companies will create the conditions for mutual mentorship to flourish.

I see how your role as a “Modern Elder” worked in the situation you had at AirBnB, working with CEO Brian Chesky – does it translate to other industries, levels in the organization, types of work?

Over the past couple of years of interviewing hundreds of middle age, mid-level managers and working with them in our midlife Academy, I have confidence there’s a growing number of workplaces than are thirsty for the mature leadership offered by those in midlife. The older we get, the more attuned we are to “environmental mastery,” knowing which habitats are good for us. So, if you’re not in the right company, it may require you to “repot” yourself elsewhere. In the book, I write about how those of us in midlife can identify companies that may be more interested in age diversity.

You’ve just launched the “Modern Elder Academy.” Tell us more.

The traditional three-stage life (learn-earn-retire) is disappearing and, yet, we’ve not created societal support that encourages people in midlife to imagine repurposing themselves. Historically, society created rituals and celebrations during those phases of life – puberty, emerging adulthood, marriage, child birth, and death – when people were going through great transitions. Midlife, as we know it, is a relatively new phenomenon given the thirty-year growth in US longevity in the 20th century. Rather than creating rites of passage for people 45-65 years old when so many transitions occur, we just labeled this period “midlife crisis.” We’ve launched the Modern Elder Academy, the first midlife wisdom school, in Baja to offer a week-long and two-week-long curriculum that provides some tools to start reframing one’s lifetime of experience. 153 people went through the beta program Jan-June this year and we now open to the public on our beachfront Baja campus this November with 50% of our students being on scholarship. You can learn more at

This book was recommended by Martha Deevy, Associate Director, Director of the Financial Security Division at the Stanford Center on Longevity.