F**k Yeah, I’m Fifty.
Pardon my French, but as someone about to reach their fiftieth year on the planet, I need to put to rest a backward notion that exists in the corporate mindset, that anyone over fifty years of age has reached an arbitrary professional expiration date.
Age discrimination is pervasive and real, as evidenced by the fact that colleagues and friends have been asking me to shave my salt and pepper beard prior to a job interview. Some have even urged me to start dressing again like a twenty-something.
Much ink has been spilled about gender, racial and cultural biases in the workplace but not much has been written about age discrimination. A Harvard Business Review study asked 10,000 companies, “Is age a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage in your organization? ”More than seventy percent responded saying they considered age a competitive disadvantage. This was supported by AARP’s findings which showed that over two-thirds of individuals aged 45–74, have faced workplace discrimination.
I work in an industry where ageism is particularly rampant. There is absolutely no good reason why you don’t see more grey haired advertising executives, unlike bankers, doctors, financial advisors, professors, economists and business consultants.
A 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics study found that 63 percent of workers in the advertising and PR industry, were under 45 years of age. The median age for our industry stood at 39.2 years, compared with the legal, accounting and travel professions, which had a median age over 45 years.
I hasten to add that the impact of ageism is worse for women. In much the same way that in 2021, women in America still suffer from an unacceptable wage disparity, making only 82 cents for every dollar a man makes.
I have never understood this because in my experience women make more effective leaders than most men. Perhaps it was this realization and fear that led men, throughout history, to set-up major obstacles and barriers to disadvantage and discourage women from achieving professional success. But I digress.
For me, a company writing off people based on their age is akin to discarding a vintage wine, purely because you don’t like the label. Informed by Martin Seligman’s research into ageing and creativity, I want to offer employers a business case to reconsider this hiring fallacy and embrace fifty-plus year old, women and men (and pay them equally).
One: Confidence and ‘Lived’ Experience. The longer you have lived, the more you have witnessed; this fact is irrefutable. In business, the value of ‘lived’ experiences are a potent advantage. I am not talking about IQ or book smarts, but about personally experiencing a myriad of business scenarios that involve ups and downs, good and bad outcomes, and high highs and low lows.
When I was in my twenties and thirties I came across as confident, but the truth is that it was bluster. More often than not, I was compensating for the fact that my real-world experience was limited, so my confidence was never rooted in knowledge, expertise or a firm grasp of the situation at hand.
However, now I draw from a deep well of experiences, across cultures, geographies and companies that help me navigate the thorniest issues with a high degree of confidence. Today, my confidence stems from real-world knowledge and tried and tested expertise.
This knowledge also has the benefit of hard lessons learned from mistakes I made, as well as a front-row seat to witnessing what my bosses did and didn’t do. In business, knowing what not to do is more valuable than pretending you have all the answers. Complex business problems involve hundreds of factors, most of them outside our control.
I admit when I don’t have the answers, while reassuring my team that we will figure it out together. Not something the younger me would have had the confidence to do.
Two: Persuasion and Decision-Making Skills Another advantage of age lies in the diversity of knowledge accumulated over time. In every situation from a product launch to people management, older employees will be able to access and offer a far more diverse library of perspectives.
For this reason, and because they have more years of practice, they are able to sense the needs of audiences better than young people can. This is why older people tend to be more persuasive. Us dinosaurs are in less of a hurry to achieve an outcome, and instead choose to stay focused on achieving the better outcome.
Older decision makers panic less because they understand the impact of haste makes waste in ways that youth cannot yet fully appreciate. Also, by our late forties we have seen enough to know that NOTHING is the end of the world — not missing a deadline, botching a major pitch or losing a big client.
For this reason, the burden that younger people feel when faced with making big and far-reaching decisions is not felt as acutely by elders, which allows them to think more freely and expansively in high stress situations.
Older people also possess greater intuition, or pattern recognition, which allows them to take mental shortcuts (heuristics) that lead to faster decision-making. These decisions are rooted in knowledge, expertise and perspectives gained over a long period of time versus needing to rely more heavily on gut instinct or having to wing it.
Three: Loyalty and Retention. Prior to the pandemic 43 percent of Millennials and 61 percent of Gen-Zers said in a Deloitte survey that they were planning to leave their job within two years. A 2020 IBM study found that even in the midst of this global pandemic, 1 in 5 employees changed jobs, with Gen Z and Millennials making up more than half these job-switchers.
Every CEO knows that high employee turnover rates come at a high cost. One study estimates that a company needs to spend the equivalent of six to nine months of an employee’s salary to find and train their replacement. Millennials form the largest percentage of any generation in the U.S. workforce, and Gallup estimates that their turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually.
Older workers not only stick around longer but a Columbia University study found that they play a critical role in training the next generation of workers. Further, as a result of their long-term presence, they are able to forge more meaningful relationships with customers.
The same study finds that the issue of some older workers being less comfortable with technology, can be overcome. Businesses that set an expectation that all workers must adapt to new technologies and provided support to help them do it, and those that paired workers with stronger and weaker technology skills together, found tremendous success.
Not everything gets better with age, as we face some cognitive decline. Older people have less stamina and take longer to bounce back after a mentally or physically grueling week. Our memory becomes less reliable, which is why older folks write more things down.
Older people can become more rigid in their thinking and less open to new ways of doing things. With age, our brains become more risk averse, which diminishes our tolerance for experimentation and risk taking.
That said, numerous studies indicate that the benefits of employing older workers far outweighs the few pitfalls. They find that age diversity results in a competitive advantage to employers. Companies that embrace multi-generational workforces see higher levels of worker satisfaction, greater employee productivity and are more profitable.
A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with above-average diversity (age, gender and ethnicity) report revenues 19 percent and profit margins 9 percent higher, than companies with low diversity. An OECD study estimates that giving older workers more opportunities to work will raise GDP per capita, across OECD, by 19 percent.
Additionally, there is ample evidence that dispels the myth of successful entrepreneurs being twenty-somethings. Harvard Business Review found that people over the age of forty are three times more likely to create a successful company based on their “patient, collaborative natures, and their lack of a ‘need to prove myself’ attitude that tends to accompany youth.”
As for employers concerned about upsetting the Millennial apple cart, they need not worry because a 2020 AARP workforce survey finds that 70 percent of workers in the U.S. say that they enjoy working with people from other generations.
Companies that want to thrive in this new world of economic uncertainty, rapid innovation and constant change need to marry the never-ending curiosity and risk-embracing behaviours of young minds, with the deep knowledge and real-world experience of older ones.
It is time to end these unprofitable and disadvantageous age discrimination policies and begin recruiting a diverse and multi-generational workforce that consists of young warriors, middle aged-mavens and elder stateswomen.