Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. ~Mark Twain
My father and mother were married for close to 60 years and like all long standing relationships they had their little phrases and sayings about each other. Terms of Endearment is a nice way to classify them. One of my dad’s favorite sayings, especially when Mom did something to annoy him, was:
“Be careful or I just might trade you in for two 25’s!”
As kids we would roll our eyes and laugh at their silly little ways. But now that I am a decade and a half past 50, I think about things a little differently.
For instance, would you hire a 50 – 60 year old to help grow your business, or would you prefer two 25’s? I know I am stepping on a lot of beliefs, opinions and sacred ground here, but let’s explore this a little further.
First thought that probably comes up is that in most places it is illegal, as well as morally wrong, to discriminate on the basis of age. Yet it happens all the time. Very few 60-year olds, or even 50+’s get hired easily in today’s marketplace when there is an overwhelming number of young MBA’s looking for employment. The odds are definitely stacked, with probably 50 to 1 more young MBA’s applying than 50+ year olds. So in some sense, it’s just easier to toss the CVs of the older person and concentrate on the mountain of younger CVs that come in. Done all the time.
Why else would you not consider the older candidate? Well, let’s be practical. Their longevity with the firm will obviously be less and therefore the payback on training and development reduced. But realistically, how many young employees are looking for a lifetime career with one company? In today’s world most young employees are looking for stepping stones and not careers!
Third reason for not picking the older candidate is they often come with built-in habits of working and common sense says it’s easier to mould fresh talent than teach “old dogs new tricks”.
Also, many older employees often come with expectations, preferences and “attitudes”: “I’m not about to work for someone 20 years younger than me! I know 10X more than she does!” Many employers would rather avoid that type of confrontation all together.
Another reason? How about the commonly held belief, often valid, that the younger candidate is more technology-savvy and open to new ways of working and different business models. After all, social-media is the business model of the future (at least it’s in vogue at the moment).
The cost comparison used to be a common argument favoring the younger candidate, but I’m not so certain any more. Newly minted 25-year old MBAs come with very large salary expectations, and they are getting their price. I surmise the starting salary expectations between the 25 and 50 year old are not too dissimilar. So in the case of salary money, two 25’s are not equal to a 50! (I think my Dad would have had a hard time affording two 25’s as well!)
It also used to be true that younger people had more energy and stamina but today 60 is the new 40 and there is plenty of healthy living left in many of the 50+ crowd who are eager to continue being productive and creative.
So, what does the 50+ candidate have going for them? I’d like to believe that experience counts for something, especially when it comes to dealing with people as part of a team or inside a large corporation. Many have learned to deal more effectively with their colleagues now than when they were 25 and “knew all the answers”. I also believe decision-making favors experience over youth, although it is also true that past experiences are not always the best way to judge future possibilities and the exploration of new ideas can suffer as a result.
As I write this I feel like there is not a clear “one is better than the other” answer, as it should be when dealing with people and human potential. I believe we need to look very carefully at every candidate, no matter what their age (or other characteristics) and make the best decision based on who will provide the best overall value and also best match our culture and values. I do know one thing for certain, however, to eliminate the older candidate (whether consciously or sub-consciously) is definitely a big mistake.
Bet on the jockey, not the horse!
If a 50+ experienced business person came to you and said:
“I want to help you grow your business over the next 5 years and I know how to do it, and in fact have done it before!”,
how would you react? I doubt that would be the opening line from a new MBA!
It’s worth rethinking our views and biases from time to time.
John R Childress, Independent Senior Executive Advisor and Author