The average age of the Olympic competitors in London in 2012 was 26; however the fascinating fact for me was that the average coach/trainer age was 60. Last week I read the BRW Rich 200; some amazing stories particularly of the 39 billionaires. There are a few 30 and 40 year old rich listers, however, the average age of the 200 on the list is 64.

In a recent news article, by Fiona Smith, in the AFR on “Why 50 somethings are powerful and powerless at the same time”, she stated that……”the most powerful age in business today is 53, the average of the country’s top 50 CEOs”.

It is a paradox – we want “senior” people to run companies but many of us are not keen to hire “senior” people!

If we look at our own work place as well as companies we interact with, we seem to have a dilemma, or even a contradiction.

Both at home and at work we are willing to pay for professional advice and often we prefer to engage older more experienced advisors, particularly in fields such as Legal, Business Improvement, Strategy, Finance & Accounting and Specialist Consulting. The more experienced they are, the more likely they are to be engaged. Why do you think that High Court judges are not in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s?

Why is it then, that so many Australian companies are reluctant to hire people over the age of 50?

I was a pretty good footy player in the 70’s and early 80’s, however, I physically no longer have what it takes to play now. It’s ironic really as I know a lot more about the game now than I did when I was 20! If I could only stick my older and wiser head on my body back in 1980’s ………!

At the 2012 Olympics Britain’s Nick Skilton won gold at 54…and he was on a horse! We would not expect a fifties something swimmer, track athlete or weight lifter to be selected at that level!

This same logic holds true for industry; as we age we DO get much better but not with all things.

  • There is some truth in the fact that the hiring process of many companies favours younger applicants because those that are doing the task of “short listing” are generally younger themselves, and may not fully appreciate the additional benefits provided by greater experience.
  • There is some truth in the fact that as we get older there are a few things that a younger person can do better.

  • There is some truth in the fact that an older person has more knowledge and experience than their younger counterparts.

  • There is very little truth in the fact that younger staff will have a longer tenure in their position.

I am, of course, biased.  Our "Grey Haired Gurus"™ are "older and wiser" but the real reason they are employable as consultants, managers, mentors, advistors, etc. is because they have identified their strengths and have honed their area of speciality, i.e. subject matter experts

I asked some companies that do hire people over the age of 50 to share some of their own experience.  Here are some of the responses:

  • “Productivity has definitely increased and their experience and ability to communicate is fantastic but I would prefer them to walk the floor as a team leader or manager not to work on the floor”.
  • “She brings a practical and grounded view to the team; there is less “leaping” and more “thinking” before starting into campaigns and projects. Added to that the meetings seem to run smoother!”
  • “A plumbing business in Sydney has grown substantially over the past 3 years. They have a number of vans on the road that attend to service calls, generally driven by 20 or 30 something’s, but their success has been attributed to their customer service people back at the office. They do 2 things: 1. Talk to the customer to scope or up-sell and 2. Mentor the crew on the road on the phone who often call them and show them an issue real time using their smart phone! These customer service reps are all ex plumbers and all over 55.

As a manager, are you clear on what “person” you are hiring? Is it all skills based or do you have a natural bias to applicants similar to you?

As a “senior” person looking at a new position, are you targeting your strengths or is your CV poorly written and not highlighting your age related attributes and experience?

A CV may not reflect communication, compassion, understanding, empathy and patience; attributes often associated with experience.

There has been much in the media about unemployment increasing over the next year and this may or may not happen in certain industries and geographic locations. However, for the past 5 years, job growth has outpaced job losses by almost double and this trend is set to continue over the next decade. Where will all the extra staff come from?…….. I think you know the answer - they are already here!

Phil Ruthven from IBIS World stated in a recent article that “The biggest threats to employment are our restrictive and regressive IR regulations, an unimaginative view of where jobs are emerging and a failure to realise that the definition of “old” is going up by 2 to 3 years every decade.

The real question is why stop working when we reach a certain age? At 65 we potentially will have over 2 decades of productive living! (health permitting) and, let’s face it, golf & cruises etc. in retirement are great but humans are wired to be productive ……….there is plenty of evidence to show that the more we have to do, the longer we live.

In conclusion, the workplace is changing rapidly and this change is showing no signs of slowing down. So, consider the following:

  • What are you doing about it?
  • Does your business have the right balance between fixed and variable staff?
  • Are you hiring the right people?
  • If you think someone has reached their “use by” date could it be better to re-train and re-deploy?   
  • If you do fit into the “senior category” how do you portray your skills and attributes?

By Richard Blow