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Leon Kaye headshot

Betty White and Making the Case That Years of Experience Matter

By Leon Kaye
Betty White

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office in June 2012.

Editor's note: You're not too late to support the work and passion of Betty White - as in animal welfare. Among the various organizations that still support her lifelong cause, the Commerce Street Brewery Hotel, in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, the hometown of White's late husband, Allan Ludden, is still running their "Buy Betty White a Beer" promotion. All proceeds go to local animal welfare charities.

Betty White was an outlier. Rarely does anyone have a career that spans as long as eight decades in any sector – much less within an industry that often values youth, connections and looks over experience. Of course, part of the resilience that White had demonstrated over the years was her ability to adapt to any medium, whether she worked in radio, live television, soaps, sit-coms and of course, her epic hosting of Saturday Night Live in 2010:

It’s true, Betty White was a standout, in part because of her demeanor and timeless likability. She also had a relentless work ethic, as her assistant, Kiersten Mikelas, pointed out in the tribute (it was originally planned to be a celebration of White becoming a centenarian) that ran in movie theaters on what would have been her 100th birthday on January 17. Mikelas pointed out that near to the very end, White insisted on having a fully booked schedule – in fact, she got job offers even last month – as well as tackling what to many would appear to be mundane tasks such as answering fan mail.

Clearly, they broke the mold when Betty White came into our TV sets and our lives, and there will never be another one like her. Nevertheless, the traits she showed time and time again – her decision making skills (she turned down an offer to work as a host on The Today Show in the 1970s, knowing the gig wasn’t right for her); her productivity that only increased with age; undeniable motivation; and her ongoing focus on doing her job and doing it well offer a reminder of why older citizens should be seen as valued members of our society, including the workplace.

As Kerry Hannon summed up for Forbes a few years ago, “Older workers tend to be poised and self-assured. The best employees are those who bring a mix of confidence and expertise–that combo shines with the rich patina that comes with age.”

Nevertheless, bias against people in the workplace over 50 endures. The usual tropes are repeated: People closer to retirement age than legal drinking age can’t or won’t adapt, cannot pick up technology quick enough, lack the skills crucial for the economy of the 2020s, and so forth.

Researchers at the Harvard Business Review are among those who have put those assumptions to rest.

“The scientific evidence on this issue shows differently: For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing even beyond the age of 80,” Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in September 2019. “There is also ample evidence to assume that traits like drive and curiosity are catalysts for new skill acquisition, even during late adulthood. When it comes to learning new things, there is just no age limit, and the more intellectually engaged people remain when they are older, the more they will contribute to the labor market.”

We’re not saying to everyone that it simply up to you to chin up, you’ll become the Betty White of your industry. Nevertheless, the grit that was behind her sunny disposition allowed her to forge ahead offers those of us who are over 40 some optimism that if we play our cards right, we can have fulfilling careers long past Social Security age.

The hard part, however, is convincing the hiring managers and human resources staffers of the world that this is the case, even though plenty of evidence out there backs up these claims.

Image credit: Pete Souza via Wiki Commons

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye