Ageist Advice

Ageist Advice
Image searches for "older workers" return a preponderance of photos of white people, and also, of young people appearing to help older people with technology.

I have been working for a while. I graduated from high school in 1977, from college in 1981, and from business school in 1982. I looked really, really young (and really, really female!) when I started my career in finance. Finance was the result of a choice to remove all that computing stuff from my resume — I was one of those women Clive Thompson refers to in Coders who thought the idea of being locked up in an airless room full of terminals sounded like a lot less fun than taking people out to lunch. I shifted back into IT when my kids were born — even in the 1990’s it was a lot easier to find part time work in IT than in finance.

This is all to say that I am no stranger to discrimination and bias. I called it out in 2014 when I was writing for my employer about how stereotyping affects training, and I’m sort of appalled to see it play out in a recent “insight” from my alma mater.

The article title sounds pretty good: In the Hunt for Top Talent, Don’t Overlook Older Workers. The piece is “based on insights from” Jeff Hyman, an adjunct lecturer at Kellogg who also owns an executive search firm. Mr. Hyman’s CV suggests that he’s about 50 himself, which puzzles me, given the tone of the article — but it’s possible that the article’s author is a considerably younger student or staff member who wrote up an interview with the man.

After pointing out that people 65 and over are a growing demographic and are often highly skilled in their domain, the article seeks to disabuse the reader of various myths surrounding issues with older workers. Hyman is quoted: “I know people in their sixties who are as spry as a thirty-year-old. People are living longer and taking better care of themselves.”

Say what? “Spry”? Seriously? Nobody uses the word spry to describe 30-year-olds. “Spry” implies an unexpected level of activity and agility in someone of an age assumed to be past that. It’s true, people ARE living longer and taking care of themselves. This means that words like “healthy” and “active” and “mentally agile” can indeed be applied to people who are 60 and up. No need to condescend with “spry.”

The article continues: “True, they’re not “digital natives.” But older people use technology all the time in almost every aspect of their lives, from online banking to video chat.”

This is a seriously under-informed observation. People who are 70 in 2019 were 35 in 1984, when personal computers first became widely popular. They bought computers for their homes and their families and learned to use spreadsheets and word processors LONG before this technology became user-friendly. They TAUGHT their kids how to use these expensive tools, because the last thing they wanted was for the kids to break the thing. (My mother-in-law, now 80, got herself an Apple II in the early 80’s so she could more easily manage the finances at the church where she worked as secretary. These days she uses Windows 10 and Quicken.) Buying a modem to bring the family computer online in the 90’s was pretty doable for your average 40-something. Every person in this demographic who ever worked in an office has learned multiple operating systems and applications. Anyone who lived through MS-DOS and the original Windows or Apple DOS and System 1 probably has sufficient chops to learn to use the much more easily operated applications of today, even if they are more complicated than online banking!

The article makes a number of good points: The lower turnover among older workers tends to offset their higher health care costs. Their stage in life may give them more salary flexibility. Structuring a job for an older worker may be more likely to require cash compensation, since they don’t have the timeline for an equity position to grow. It’s also true that people’s interest in 50+ hour work weeks often wanes with age, so the flexible scheduling plans designed for young parents may also be attractive to this cohort.

Weirdly, though, the article suggests that job boards might not be effective places to find older workers. as if suddenly, upon entering their 50’s or 60’s, people forget how to do the online job search which has been part of recruiting for the last 20 years. I mean, I guess it’s cool that Burger King is recruiting at community centers, but I’m not sure that’s where the “top talent” which is still engaged in the work world is hanging out.

Also strange is the statement that the situation in which an older worker reports to a younger manager is somehow “fraught.” People who have been in the workplace in the decades of the 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and 10’s have generally encountered a range of managers of different ages, sexes, and races over a career. Odds are that the older person will take working for a younger one in stride, even if it’s the first time the younger person has had this experience.

The article makes a big deal of explaining that “mentoring” can go both ways, and then suggests that what the younger people have to teach the older is stuff like managing reputations on social media! Many older workers may have switched fields, and may benefit from mentoring on domain-specific skills from a younger, more experienced colleague. The author cites a Harvard Business Review survey in which “younger employees say they learn a variety of skills from older colleagues, including how to manage an increased workload, delegate tasks, and manage time” But it’s not just soft skills that older workers have to offer — it’s also the perspective on solving problems which comes from the reality that their current position is not the older worker’s “first rodeo.”

The article ends with the statement “The way to do this is slowly. You’ll want to pilot it and build a successful case study, so that your people can see the advantages firsthand.”

If “this” refers to the practice of hiring people on the basis of the fit of their skillset and experience to the position which the organization is seeking to fill, rather than rejecting excellent candidates because of age-related prejudice, “going slowly” would seem to be a recipe for losing the best candidates to more clear-eyed competition.

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