How Can We Value Seniors as Workers and Mentors as They Age? Inspiration from Swiss Watchmakers


In the 1980s, Swiss watchmakers were in trouble. Quartz watches were introduced to the market, and these cheaper, easier-to-make watches flooded the watchmaking market. Swiss craftsmen were at a loss: mechanical watches like theirs were simply no longer economically viable, unable to make profit due to the labor-and-parts-intensive nature of their construction. These watchmakers were at a loss: how would they preserve their artistry and skill, a trade many of them had mastered only after many years of education, training, and practice, with the advent of watches that were just as effective and a fraction of the price?

Yet Swiss watchmakers bounced back. In a paper from Harvard Business School, scholar Ryan Raffaeli points out that legacy technology can actually re-emerge as a way to re-brand and profit in the business world. As an older community, Swiss watchmakers were able to differentiate themselves from competitors and paint themselves as the standard of excellence in accuracy, aesthetic, and tradition. They then cornered a niche of the luxury watch department that saved artisanal Swiss watchmaking from extinction.


How Does This Apply to the Senior in My Life?

Not every senior is a Swiss watchmaker, obviously. But in an ever-changing economy, seniors often do need to find new ways to market and brand themselves and their work. Many see seniors as struggling to adapt to changing technologies, but that was exactly what happened in Switzerland. Senior Swiss watch makers asserted the value of their handcrafted items, and now Swiss watches are sold for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Instead of seeing seniors as outdated or too old to be valuable, we need to change our perspective toward finding what seniors can do for themselves and the economy simply because they have decades of hands-on experience.

It comes down to valuation. Yes, technology, especially manufacturing and computer technology, can make massive leaps forward and can leave some seniors behind in the required training in their use. Popular Internet memes commonly riff on this cultural theme, pointing out that even the middle-aged are behind the times. But that does not mean that older ways (and older people) do not have value in our culture and economy.

For example, clothing is often machine-made, Machines can make clothing very well, yet there is nothing like a dress shirt or jacket made specifically for you by a skilled craftsperson—and sewing is a skill that was taught to many older people in school. Valuing that experience, training, and lifetime of practice means that, instead of buying an expensive garment, we could instead turn our money and minds toward seniors who can sew or tailor garments to our exact needs. The price may be more, it may be less, but the value—the true amount of good or bad gained from the experience—is often more. Also, it supports the craftsmanship and skills of seniors.

Owning a business and operating one in a complex market is different now than it used to be, that is indisputable. But seniors who currently own or used to own businesses still have valuable words of advice for young people just starting out or facing problems in their established businesses. Keeping products simple and relatable to the targeted customer, providing outstanding and personal customer service, and taking care of loyal employees are all values many seniors hold and which they enacted as they ran their businesses. All of these factors contribute to success for startups. Seeking out the advice of current or former elderly business owners—valuing their work and contributions to the field of business and being willing to act on that advice—is a way to reflect and pass on their value as time passes.

Engaging seniors in your workplace or community, and not writing them off as no longer viable workers, shows that you know they have valuable contributions to make yet.

Another way to value the work of seniors is to recognize that “retirement age” doesn’t mean “mandated time at home to sit quietly.” Many seniors today (and in the past) have worked long past retirement age, or have continued to mentor and volunteer even beyond retirement. Engaging seniors in your workplace or community, and not writing them off as no longer viable workers, shows that you know they have valuable contributions to make yet.

Mentorship is one way that seniors who no longer wish to work in the economy directly, or who are looking for a way to pass on their legacies, can continue to share their valuable work experience and knowledge. Taking younger workers under their wings, seniors can guide them through business and life decisions, passing on valuable knowledge and advice they learned from their own careers. Seeking out mentors that have passed retirement age may seem, to some younger people, to be less-than-ideal, since the economy has changed so much in recent years, but many seniors are still involved and successful in the current economy. This means that their wisdom and work are just as valid as ever.



Murray, Ryan. (August 11, 2014). Author extols value of work for seniors. The Daily Inter Lake Available at Retrieved March 26, 2016.

Raffaelli, Ryan. (December 12, 2013).Mechanisms of Technology Re-Emergence and Identity Change in a Mature Field: Swiss Watchmaking, 1970-2008. Harvard Business School Working Paper 14-048 Available at Retrieved March 26, 2016.

The Economist. (February 16, 2013). Time is money: An industry ripe for a shake-up. Available at Retrieved March 26, 2016.