‘I’m often the oldest guy in the room. That’s not a problem’

Diverse workforces bring many benefits but age is an asset travel and technology industries often overlook.

“I speak and I speak…but the listener retains only the words he is expecting,” the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo complained back in the 13th Century. Was he, perhaps, describing the earliest known example of holiday anecdote fatigue in his long-suffering audience? After all, Polo’s epic travels in China took 24 years – in 21st Century terms that’s an awful lot of scenic selfies.

The point is, travel has always exerted a fascination and there is no age limit. Polo was well into his 40s when he finally got home, pretty old back in the 1200s. Actor and inspirational travel writer Sir Michael Palin is still globe-trotting at 79. And Sir David Attenborough? It’s not just the famous. A study by over 50s holiday company Saga in 2021 showed the pandemic had done little to dampen the urge to travel of older people.

What does all this have to do with the supply side where I work, in a strange crevice blending tech and travel? A lot. People are living longer and the disposable income of retired people has been generally growing since 1977 2. In 2021, Eurostat said tourists aged over 65 accounted for nearly a quarter of ‘tourism nights’ for EU residents, while those aged 55+ made up 41%.

It would seem only polite for the industry to reflect this demographic. Yet only a very small percentage of workers fall into the 50-65+ age groups. Tourism is a wide field, of course, including hotels, rentals, tour guides and the people who sell those little plastic souvenirs. One would not necessarily expect to find many over-65s leading ice-climbing expeditions up Norwegian glaciers, though never say never. As people live longer and, with the usual caveats, healthier lives, and as the pensionable age rises, this figure is surprising. In technology, the youth bias is even more defined.

My company was founded to capitalise on opportunities provided by the collapse of global legacy travel technology systems. Once a customer has made an initial booking, we search daily until we find a better deal, either the same at a better price or higher quality. A new booking is made and the customer can choose to swap, or stick.

I saw first-hand increasing fails in existing travel systems since 2010 and the difficulties these ‘outages’ caused my then corporate employer. They were hurting passengers too. Our technology is designed to align the interests of passengers and suppliers.

Here’s the thing. When we began coding in 2019, I was 56. Unlike Marco Polo’s day, it’s not really considered old. But I’ve met many entrepreneurs and frequently been the oldest guy in the room. That’s not a problem, though many might see typical start-up founders as young, smart, driven, creative, optimistic, single-minded etc and might add - naïve. Apart from ‘young’ and ‘naïve’ I’m all these things. As an older entrepreneur, I also bring other qualities. For example, I can find solutions to problems based on nearly 40 years of experience. My expectations are bold but rooted in reality. Plenty of older workers have similar life experience. Rather than old, try ‘seasoned’. At 25, I wouldn’t have had the tenacity, patience and experience to start JourneyHero though I had the technical skills.

Companies need to start acknowledging the benefits age brings, as they already do for gender and ethnicity.

I’ve never experienced overt ageism. But ‘Key Man Risk’ – where potential investors might interrogate likelihood of illness or death – is a euphemism, I suspect, for ageism. Rarely, a new developer might query my technical prowess but I don’t over-react - because I’m mature and experienced. They never do it more than once.

There is an unwritten assumption young people are better at tech. It’s fair to say many youngsters have a no-boundaries approach that makes for creative breakthroughs. It sometimes seems an older person who decides to break a paradigm must prove they are not just par but better. The upside is, many young people are looking for role models. By seeing older people doing it they are encouraged to succeed.

Experience has taught me not everyone’s the same and to get the best from individuals you need to understand their specific motivations. Secondly, it’s important to be open to receiving good ideas from any source, even when they clash with your own preconceptions. Thirdly, effective communication is vital, listening even more important.

There’s a big difference between good leaders and good managers. Companies need both. The best approach is to find teams that have a mix of leadership qualities and managerial skills, raw creativity and experience. You rarely find everything in one package.

The best way to obtain the optimum qualities is by promoting diversity in all its forms yet age is an asset many companies still overlook. At JourneyHero, we review skills of potential employees and their ability to work as a team. Do they have a passion for problem-solving and success? That’s about it.

Despite being older than many start-up entrepreneurs, I’m not the oldest in my company, not even the second oldest. I’d like to think in future many company bosses will be able to make similar claims.