How Do You Stay Relevant as You Get Older?

Lloyd Alter and building he designed
This is me back in 1985, when I was an architect. The building is Toronto's Kensington Market Lofts, which my company developed about 20 years ago.

Lloyd Alter

When you look back at your life, there are moments you feel like your name is up in lights. But what happens when that phase passes?

Watching a documentary about urban issues on the local public television network, I was surprised how much of it was filmed in front of a building I developed 20 years ago in Toronto’s Kensington Market. There was Mikael Colville-Andersen, talking to everybody who's interesting in Toronto — and I was a bit disappointed that he never talked to me.

Twenty years ago, I was a player in Toronto, but after doing this building, I lost my company and I could barely get out of bed for two years but was saved by writing, which is why I'm here today.

Kensington Lofts
Land use and policy planner Gil Meslin and Mikael Colville-Andersen in front of my building. Lloyd Alter / TiVO screen capture

The day after watching that show, I saw a post on Next Avenue, a site dealing with aging issues, titled "Does Getting Older Mean You No Longer Matter?" And I wondered, does everything I've done in this city no longer matter?

The research behind the article notes that older people get asked for advice and opinions less than younger people do.

The connection between advice-giving and life meaning is most pronounced for late-middle age adults — even as changes during this part of the life course reduce the odds of advice exchange.... Yet opportunity structures for advice transmission also shift over life course, leaving adults in late-middle age and beyond with fewer opportunities to engage in such generative practices.

It raised a lot of questions for me. Having been an architect and a developer in Toronto, there are a lot of physical remnants of my life, and they are disappearing fast, so this may be hitting me harder than it would other people.

strip mall
One of my less-attractive projects gets the boot. Lloyd Alter / TreeHugger)

I’m no longer relevant in Toronto. I accept that I really don’t work here anymore. My buildings are getting demolished, but I think that's a good thing. I wasn't a very good architect.

My online legacy is even less likely to survive, given that it’s almost entirely on the web. I spent a good three years writing what I thought was great stuff for a website that no longer exists, they closed it down and just pulled the plug, and all that work is gone. (And I thought the internet was forever.) So here I am, a former architect and developer who built a lot of bricks-and-mortar stuff, and a writer who wrote some pretty popular internet stuff, and I'm seeing my legacy in both disappear before my eyes.

In Britain, they have the Rubble Club, where architects who have lost buildings during their lifetime (it used to be rare that buildings were finished in an architect's lifetime) get together for a drink of Macallan’s. In North America, I suppose they'd run out of scotch.

How to stay relevant, regardless of your age

In her Next Avenue article, Debbie Reslock makes some good, universal points for everyone about staying relevant, and as an aging boomer I have to pay attention to them:

  • Team up with millennials instead of seeing them as a threat. Both sides have something to teach and learn from each other.
  • Don’t resist change just because it’s different. Be open to new ideas, even if that means letting go of the way things have always been done.
  • Keep up to date on new skills and the many ways now available to learn them.
  • Establish your own personal branding and market yourself and your skills.
  • Networking is still important, but it’s a two-way street. Don’t forget to ask how you can help those you meet.
  • Think more like an entrepreneur, by being a perpetual learner and accountable for building your own business life. Don’t rely on an organization to take care of you.

All good points. My position is a bit extreme as most people don't see a building they created come down, but their contributions to the world are no less valuable, and their need to be relevant no less real.

But then Reslock concludes:

We’ll always have value to those who love and care about us. So instead of looking back to what we’ve lost, let’s look ahead to what we’ve gained. Because when we’re not being driven to prove to the world how much we still matter, we can let go and just engage with those who matter to us most.

She suggests that perhaps we should embrace irrelevancy.

Wanting to feel relevant is understandable. But refusing to let go when, and where, we should is pointless. Because there comes a time when we have to pass the torch. It doesn’t mean we don’t matter anymore, only that we accept that our roles have shifted.

I read this and I thought no, she's wrong on this point. That’s too easy. I don't accept irrelevance. I count my Twitter followers and newsletter subscribers every day, relishing every retweet. But then I get on my bike and go downtown and realize I don’t know this city anymore — and it doesn’t know me either.

When it comes to what I did 20 years ago, I'm no longer relevant. But so many of us are doing different things, and in this different world, we still have a role to play. I still get out there and give advice, it's just different advice than I used to give. People are reading what I write and students are coming to my classes.

green building talk
This is an ad for a green building lecture in October — proof that I am still trying to keep myself in the game. Lloyd Alter / Fourth Pig

I've faced the fact that there are young writers with energy and drive who really know what’s going on in ways I cannot begin to understand. They stay up late. There are young architects and developers who are doing buildings and using technologies that I cannot begin to comprehend. But I’m still learning, still evolving — and I’m not out of ideas yet. And I believe that's what still matters.

I don't mourn what I’ve lost all that much. (Frankly, I miss the words more than the buildings.) Most architects don’t live long enough to see their work getting demolished and I have, so perhaps I should count myself lucky.

But I will never embrace irrelevance. Never.