We are all young. Once. But experience only comes with age

Written by: Steve Playford
Published on: 20 Apr 2015

I read a brilliant blog the other day on Linkedin. It was by an IT recruiter, and was on the subject of age discrimination.  It began by citing a businessman called Mark, who told an audience in 2007, "I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter".  The author went on to ponder what would have been the response if Mark had said ‘young men are just smarter’ instead of ‘young people’.  Today, it would be instructive to see how many comments that generated on Facebook, which would be ironic because the Mark in question is indeed Mr Zuckerberg, the founder of the world’s biggest social media platform.  But why do we get so het-up about this age thing?

In a recent newspaper article, Professor Peter Spencer, chief economic adviser to the EY Item Club, suggested that late retirement was preventing younger workers from gaining responsibility and also holding back their pay, especially in professional and managerial jobs.  However, former investment banker and LSE and Harvard academic, Ros Altmann, has subsequently produced a report that says, historically, higher employment rates among older workers actually benefited younger generations and indeed boosted their wages.  Who is right is debatable, but all this misses some important points….

There are many reasons why executives should promote the employment of older people. As they form an increasing percentage of the population and, equally importantly, more of them want to carry on working, there is a large and growing pool of very experienced individuals.  Even if you are a crypto-ageist, you’ll concede that amongst this large population there must be some real talent.  But what I find particularly interesting, and slightly demoralising, is that the majority of articles on older people tend to treat them as a homogenous set and rarely consider them in the context of different types or levels of job. 

The C-suite is traditionally seen as the preserve of the older, white male, in a well-cut suit with a handmade tie and a veneer of polished wisdom.  Such people often make it to the top by dint of their ability and, let us be honest, their ‘toughness’.  Increasingly though, this stereotype is changing.  Ability is what matters, not sex nor who your tailor is.  The cry is “if they’re good enough they’re young enough”.  I’d certainly agree with that, but I’d add, “if they’re good enough then it doesn’t matter if they’re old”. 

This is particularly important in light of the Great Recession from which we are now, slowly, escaping.  Redundancies, whilst perhaps not as swingeing as in the early 1990s, certainly took their toll of a lot of very talented people.  So much so that today it’s no disgrace to have been through the ‘consultation’ process and many of today’s most successful new businesses have been started by men and women who took the opportunity presented by a pay-off to set off in a new and highly profitable direction.  This talent and enthusiasm is still around and in great numbers.  Those who have learned the most during their career, the ones with 35 years’ experience or more (not one year’s experience repeated 35 times), bring wisdom and, if they still have the enthusiasm and the ability, that experience is worth its weight in profit.  Knowing what works when, how to overcome adversity, what contacts will bring something fresh to any business discussion, these and many more are, largely, the preserve of the seasoned professional. 

As the economy, hopefully, continues to recover, it would be a foolish Chief Exec who didn’t insist that his or her recruiters seek out these diamonds that shine still brightly - even if their hair has gone a touch silvery.

Steve Playford, MD, FT Careers