by Peter Tulau
Ageism is a discriminatory attitude broadly defined as prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, in practice it can involve discriminating against younger, not just older workers, though the latter is the more usual connotation. The online Oxford Living Dictionary quotes ‘ageism in recruitment is an increasing problem’.
Age is just a number and by itself it is not, and cannot be, an accurate predictor of a person’s performance on the job in any way at all. Objective methods, such as psychological appraisal, are far more accurate and reliable at foreshadowing legitimate expectations of an individual in any given role. As are verifiable experience in a similar role, provable information as to a person’s learning capability and adaptability to new responsibilities which can be gained through reference checking.
As far as existing employees are concerned, employer discrimination involving ageism can, unfairly and illogically, be a contributing factor in relegating perfectly satisfactory, trained, functional workers, both executive and otherwise, prematurely to the scrap heap. For the purposes of this article we will focus on older workers. There is no doubt the 45 to 65-year-old group are feeling the impact of ageism across Australia and the Asia Pacific. In Australia, the causes of ageism are manifold and include but are not limited to:
- The harsh reality that there is a growing misalignment between the skills (both soft and hard) required for the contemporary world of work and the skills of the 45 to 65-year-old cohort. Robotics, digitisation and big data spring to mind.
- Pure, unadulterated age stereotyping where the organisation cannot see the value in retaining older employees. They do not see that it is the totality of the person which counts, encompassing attributes, experience and attitude. The date of birth, a minor chronological detail, should be irrelevant, but is not viewed as such. This is a pity as there are a multitude of things Millennials and Gen X can learn from the Baby Boomers. The older employees, assuming they are capable, can be quite generous in sharing their knowledge as their work motivation has quite possibly shifted from the extrinsic to the intrinsic. Career progression in a linear sense is not the focus for them. With few exceptions ageism does not seem to be a focus within diversity programs.
- Organisations, particularly in the industrial and manufacturing sectors tend to unwind inefficient, legacy employment structures which usually includes accrued entitlements for older employees. They “bite the bullet” and “reshape” their organisations for the future thus eliminating older workers. An aged worker demographic can be an incentive to “Greenfield“ an operation.
- An organisational perception that both a contemporary, progressive culture and strong organisational performance can only be driven by Millennials and Gen X. This perception exists even though older incumbent workers and candidates seeking employment can be more experienced, may have a wider range of skills and can represent the organisation effectively. This attitude is prevalent in companies founded and headed by younger entrepreneurs servicing a market and demographic.
The Impact of Ageism
The immediate negative market place ramifications of ageism are obviously chronic underemployment or permanent unemployment within the 45 to 65-year-old group and the associated financial, personal and family stress. Possible avenues for marketplace reengagement, if rampant ageism keeps locking high quality candidates out of permanent roles, are consideration of short term contracting (generally more technical in orientation) or short term consulting (generally more professional services in orientation). Whilst the short term contracting and consulting avenues can be a great way to open a new stage of working life and extend earning potential, they are not for everyone.
It is not trite to say older candidates find their new underemployed or unemployed status challenging. They can have terrific pedigrees and be quite pleased with the way their career has unfolded and the achievements they have generated, but the reality is many have been cocooned and not exposed to the new business models that determined their fate and now define current recruitment and selection patterns. These new recruitment models invariably include a move towards interim executive engagement to mitigate the skills gap that may have occurred when a company has “moved on“ the older generation and the younger employees may not yet have the requisite experience or skills. This also ties in with the desire for the lean balance sheet alluded to earlier.
Overcoming Ageism – How Candidates Can Make Themselves Marketable
It is fair to say many older candidates also may have a degree of psychological inertia where they bask in past achievements and expect that these achievements will be recognised into the future and lead to prompt reengagement. Unfortunately, this is not the case. To make themselves more marketable for either permanent or contracting roles older candidates need to get to work and do some serious due diligence on themselves to clearly understand what it is they offer prospective employers in a competitive marketplace.
- Their CVs cannot be a chronological rendition of past roles.
- They must have a contemporary LinkedIn profile as executive search researchers are scouring LinkedIn for short listable candidates.
- The CV and the LinkedIn profile needs to tell / sell a story where their capabilities have clearly delivered positive outcomes in a variety of organisational environments.
- Within their home city / region they need to know and be in the minds of 3 or 4 search consultants who operate in their industry / sector as each consultant has their own generally non-overlapping networks. Having 3 or 4 in the candidate’s network optimises the chance of a suitable role opening for discussion.
Ageism – Perspectives from Business
It is not all doom and gloom though. Ageism was discussed with the ANZ HRD of a Japanese global machinery and mining services organisation. In certain parts of the business (service and parts) age is an asset whereas in other areas (technology and digital) age is not an asset. The HRD did suggest that Baby Boomers do feel the pressure from Millennials in the technology areas. This organisation has programs which allow older workers to move to a part time basis, eventually retire and then be re engaged to provide mentorial support to apprentices. The HRD felt this was in part driven by the cultural norms of the parent company as age is valued in Japanese society and older workers are not forced to retire. The other area where age was an asset was the need to respect long standing customer relationships and match like for like in terms of experience and seniority across the customer interface. This is evidence of strong support for mature workers in several areas.
Ageism was also discussed with the APAC HRD of a substantial, US aviation services business. In the aviation sector, there is a shortage of younger technical and maintenance personnel “the apprenticeship process is challenging and attrition is very high” so the business values and retains its older workers beyond age 65 if they are capable and actively recruits in the 50 plus age bracket. Also, technology has not penetrated the sector to any great degree and has not caused worker displacement so experience is still valued. Many in this older cohort will retire in the next 5 years so the business will develop strategies to mitigate this risk. One of these strategies will include transition programs and active mentoring. Interestingly, workers used to be forced to retire at age 62 in Singapore, but now legislation has recently been passed extending this to age 65 and demanding companies find alternative employment for these individuals, something which leads to less than optimal outcomes for both the company and the employee.
In discussions with the ANZ Managing Director of a US B2B technology company, it became evident there were a range of factors underpinning the propensity for ageism to occur. In this business, even the 30 to 50-year-old cohort have a technological gap and the Millennials have the edge. If technological understanding is a component of the role “You have to be on it” and can learn and adapt. New processes and tools demand this. The MD spoke of older candidates bringing the baggage of the past to interview and failing on this measure alone. In this organisation, there is no overt policy regarding age, but the organisation is respectful of experience and there is a need to have a spread of ages within both the technical and sales functions.
Individual Capability – The Competitive Advantage
Despite the macro trends – sectoral differences, organisational culture, technological impact- there is a prevailing theme across these organisations in terms of retention of existing employees and engagement of new ones in the 45 to 65-year-old cohort and it is based around individual capability. Candidates both executive and otherwise, need to understand that at the interview, physicality, bearing, posture, presentation and professionalism are important. Initial impressions both physical and temperamental can set stereotypes which may need to be unwound later. Interviewers seek to confirm the candidate is a cultural fit with their business. The candidate needs to research the target organisation and the role and they should come prepared with a strong feel for the organisations strategy and challenges and be able to pre-empt questions. Candidates need to present as someone who has actively shaped their career by initiating and securing new opportunities, not someone who has been at the mercy of internal and external change pressures. They need to be able to demonstrate how they have made an impact with their employers and how they have personally evolved over that time. They need to be clear on their leadership/management style and they need to have done the work which has revealed these personal insights to themselves.