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Ageism at work: Irrelevant, yet prevalent

Ask any 50 plus job seeker, and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that ageism is alive and well at the workplace; of course, most employers know better than to spell it out in so many words
Illustrative photo of computer use. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of computer use. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Is ageism alive and well in the workforce? Ask any 50+ job seeker, and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that the answer is a resounding (and often bitter) yes. Of course, most employers know better than to spell it out in so many words, but for the older job seeker, discrimination based on age is part of the experience. And it is a bitter pill to swallow, especially in an age that celebrates diversity and equal rights.

Some employers feel that there are situations when ageism is justified. They will tell you that people who are nearing the end of their professional careers are usually slowing down, are not as up to date technologically, and will not give as much energy and enthusiasm to their job as a younger candidate. While this attitude may ring true to some of us, a fascinating recent study conducted by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of The 100-Year Life, presents a radically different reality.

We are used to thinking of three traditional stages of adult life: full time education, full time work, and full time retirement. Gratton and Scott demonstrate that technological advancements and increased longevity have combined to transform this traditional view into a multi-stage life that combines education, exploration, employment, freelancing, and time out of the workforce, as well as opportunities to participate in a few of these activities simultaneously.

The fact that any sequence or combination of the above is possible at any stage of life means that people of different ages are participating is similar activities, and that the workforce is increasingly age-diversified. It also means that beliefs about different age groups that held true in the past – such as the belief that younger people are more technologically adept, are more likely to value meaningful work, and will change jobs more frequently, whereas older people are less interested in professional development and are already looking forward to retirement — may no longer hold water.

Instead, the study found that people of all ages are investing in new skills, and are engaged and excited about their work. Older employees are emphatically not slowing down, and in fact, the younger age group reported significantly more interest in slowing down their life pace.

Employers: Time to let go of outdated assumptions

It’s hard to let go of long held beliefs, even with evidence to the contrary; ageism at work is no exception. As an HR consultant I often assist organizations and companies in finding new employees, and although it is now illegal for a hiring organization to state that they are seeking people below a certain age to fill a given role, I consistently see younger people hired over older candidates who are equally if not more qualified for the job.

There are other reasons that employers (perhaps subconsciously) seek out younger employees. A younger hiring manager may be concerned that an older employee will be bored and unchallenged, or conversely, that older employees may threaten the authority of their less experienced manager. If the manager is new at her role, she may feel intimidated by an employee who knows more about the field than she does; or perhaps the thought of managing someone her parents’ age is just too daunting.

Sometimes these concerns are well founded. Hiring a professional who is qualified to head the organization for a junior role may well be a recipe for disaster, or at least for a renewed candidate search in a short time. However in many cases, it is simply outdated ageism playing out, at the expense of both the older job seeker and the hiring company or organization.

If you are seeking a new employee, try to keep an open mind: age is much less relevant than the use your candidates have made of their time, the degree to which they have kept up with technological and professional changes, their work ethic and their attitude to new challenges. This approach may slow down your decision process somewhat, but the rewards will be worth the additional effort, resulting in sounder and wiser hiring choices.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.
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