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3 Ways ‘The Intern’ Gets Older Workers Wrong

The big misses in the Robert De Niro/Anne Hathaway film


We were excited when we saw the tagline “Experience never gets old” for the film The Intern. We’re a Millennial and Gen X’er working with boomers at Encore.org — a nonprofit dedicated to tapping life skills and experience and applying them to second (or third) acts that are personally meaningful and good for society. And we’ve been thinking a lot about the need to increase intergenerational collaboration in the workplace.

We’d hoped the film would capture some of the themes we were talking about. That didn’t happen.

Sure, The Intern did a good job making clear that a retirement of leisure is often not all it’s cracked up to be. Robert De Niro’s 70-year-old character, Ben Whittaker, explains in his video application to become a “Senior Intern” how exhausting it was to constantly find new ways to spend his time (taking Tai Chi, learning Mandarin, etc.). We know from the research that everyone wants to feel useful, and the desire to have a legacy impact only becomes more pronounced with age.

And we were happy to see that when Ben was selected as a personal intern to the company’s CEO Jules, played by Anne Hathaway, he was happy to help out any way he could. His strength in managing human relationships was apparent; that’s one benefit older workers bring to the workforce, since communication skills and empathy improve with time.

It would have been nice if 'The Intern' addressed why the senior internship program was possible, instead of as a way to avoid a lawsuit.

The film also hinted at the health benefits of continuing to work and feel useful in later life. Ben was noticeably happy about having a place to go each day, and seemed enlivened by his interactions with his new community. (He even developed a romantic relationship with the middle aged, on-site masseuse played by Rene Russo, and there were some smile-inducing scenes about his virility.)

But, unfortunately, the film had three big misses:

1. It didn’t address changing labor force dynamics. When Ben is waiting for his in-person interview, he’s shown sitting with several exaggeratedly elderly senior intern candidates. The scene generated a predictable laugh at our screening, but the underlying, complex truth went unaddressed.

Why are so many older Americans seeking continued employment? According to a CNNMoney story, there are now 3.4 million workers 70 and older, more than double the 1.3 million in 1990.

Here’s why: There is a massive population of boomers reaching traditional retirement age and, given longer life spans and an unstable economy, many are making the choice to continue working. According to a 2014 study by Encore.org and Penn Schoen Berland, more than 25 million Americans age 50 to 70 expressed a desire to share their skills and talents in encore careers.

With this boom of older adults ready to make meaningful contributions in the workforce, it would have been nice if The Intern had addressed why the senior internship program was even possible, instead of explaining it as a way to avoid a potential lawsuit.

2. It offered a superficial look at the benefits of intergenerational collaboration. While Jules’ early reluctance to rely on Ben — a former corporate VP — begins to change as the film progresses, we never get a clear sense of how their relationship inspires meaningful intergenerational learning.

She teaches him how to create a Facebook profile, but little else beyond that. He offers her personal advice — including during her CEO search and when her marriage is failing — but the film fails to make clear how valuable older workers are in giving strategic business advice backed by their decades of experience.

At Salesforce.com’s recent Dreamforce conference, Box’s 30-year-old CEO Aaron Levie recently spoke about the benefits of older and younger workers collaborating and playing off each other, saying: “You always want to be able to have that kind of ‘tension,’ where you have people that have seen it before and you have some new and fresh ideas, and you’re trying to blend those two together — that’s when you get real disruptive innovation.”

3. The “grey is the new green” message was totally lost. One of our favorite lines in The Intern comes in the statement “Grey is the new green,” which is quickly mentioned but a theme that’s never developed.

These days, we don’t have to look far to see examples of older adults feeling the need to make a positive social impact — from IDEO’s 91-year-old Barbara Beskind, who’s designing tech for aging adults, to former President Jimmy Carter, who finds his nonprofit work to be more personally fulfilling than his political career.

Pope Francis tapped into the trend during his speech to Congress in September: “I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land.”

With so many older adults offering up their skills and talents to improve the world in their encore careers, isn’t it time we saw this reflected well in pop culture? Who knows, maybe we’re jumping the gun and De Niro and Hathaway will return in The Intern Part II, with Ben leading the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program. Now, that’s a film we’d like to see.

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