If you want to know who you’ll be in a few years, you might get a preview by observing your older colleagues.
Apart from sprouting grey hair (kidding!), there’s a good chance that, like them, you’ll acquire more responsibilities, and not just at work. You might start dating someone seriously or get married, maybe even have kids, rise through the ranks, move abroad for a job, take a sabbatical—or perhaps, none of those things. But by studying your older co-workers, you can decide whether their career choices and accompanying lifestyles will suit you someday.
So it’s worth getting beyond office banter to cultivate deeper relationships—not only with peers in your age group. In particular, colleagues who are five to ten years older than you can provide insight as you design the next chapter of your life. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to know about their real concerns, their work challenges, and family frustrations.
Questions over coffee or chatting for a few extra minutes at the end of a video call about a work project can be helpful in establishing relationships with colleague. But an office retreat or off-site gathering can be especially revealing. The change of scenery puts people at ease, giving them more license to discuss their triumphs and complaints. Like a university orientation, it also supercharges the getting-to-know-you process.
So, the next time you find yourself with a colleague who might have some guidance for you about the road ahead, here are some questions to consider. Bear in mind, some people are more willing conversationalists than others, and as always, use discretion.
When you chat with older colleagues outside of work, you can begin to understand the demands on their time, both professional and personal. Think about the last time your manager went on vacation. Were they called back to the office for an emergency, or could they step away completely?
Some of these markers you can pick up just by watching (i.e., by arriving early and staying late yourself and seeing who else is doing the same).
But in the office, you’re often seeing only a narrow slice of a colleague’s life, and even then you’re probably looking at it in terms of your own day-to-day. Sure, they’re leaving early today for a parent-teacher conference at school, but it only matters to you because it affects your afternoon meeting schedule. It’s when people are off the clock—when you grab drinks together or meet for a holiday party—that you’ll realize whether they have hobbies or make time for family. You might think about whether you’d like to be in their shoes one day. Would you find their job meaningful? What about their home life?
For many young professionals, living in a big city, ideally close to friends, is a big priority. For older colleagues though, that might not be the case anymore.
Perhaps they’ve moved across the country to set up a new office or support a spouse. Maybe they moved out to the suburbs after they had children.
Similarly, their career priorities may have drastically shifted from the trajectory you envision for yourself or presume most people in your field would want. Maybe they realized laboratory work or frequent travel or managing people wasn’t for them anymore, and they completely changed career paths.
Opportunities for personal growth, and whether people embrace them, can influence whether they remain at a company long term or choose to leave. As you consider your own future, try doing so through the lens of your older co-workers. Has your company allowed them to change departments, or supported them while they attended graduate school? What kind of parental leave does it offer? And does it assist with retirement savings?
Older peers likely recognize the significance of these benefits, and away from work, they’ll perhaps be more open to discussing related challenges they have faced. Soon enough, you’ll be their age—and facing similar issues—so listen carefully now. You’ll be doing future-you a big favor.
This is a hard question, and you don’t want to put too fine a point on it. But wherever you work, it’s good to know whether people are put in a position to succeed.
Has your workplace given employees a chance to pursue projects they’re passionate about? And did your older co-workers receive promotions they worked toward? Why or why not? Much of this politicking remains hidden, unless you search for it.
Personal goals extend beyond one’s career, of course. Maybe you have a colleague who always dreamed of visiting Spain, or starting a food truck. If so, have they done it or have they been too busy? Nobody will be in your exact circumstances, but it’s useful to gauge whether your job will support (or curtail) your aspirations.
However you measure success, your older colleagues are a model for where you’re likely to end up. If you view them as successful, then great! If not, at least you know you might need to make a change.
But before you get too judgmental about your older colleagues, remember: Not only is their definition of success likely to be different from yours, it is likely to have evolved over time as they started juggling new priorities at home (Quartz membership exclusive) or found professional satisfaction in roles that aren’t yet on your radar screen. Perhaps your definition of success will change someday, too.
To connect with older colleagues, you might start by inviting them on a coffee run. Then maybe try grabbing lunch together. You won’t want this to be a working lunch per se, so pick a slow day to allow time to talk so you can really get to know them—or maybe even invite them over for a home-cooked meal. Be sensitive to their schedule and try to connect in a genuine way, hopefully over a shared interest. And if your office has a mentorship program, consider requesting a mentor who is just a step or two ahead of you in terms of workplace seniority, rather than being hellbent on getting matched with the CEO.
Whatever the circumstances that allowed you to connect, don’t forget to thank them and be sure to keep the lessons of their experience in mind. With the wisdom of your older work friends, you’ll be better prepared for whatever comes next.