Wednesday, 20 August 2014're never too old (unless you want a new career).

How some employers see the 55-year old job applicant

James Delingpole has been indulging in some middle-aged angst:

...I wanted to muse a little on the career choices I’ve made and on the regrets that now haunt me as a result. Fellow nearly-fiftysomethings — and post-fiftysomethings — will I’m sure understand where I’m coming from. Time is running out and the options are closing by the day.

The funny thing is that there is no obvious reason why James' options - playing high-level sport and ballet dancing aside - need to be closed off. James still has all his faculties and is likely to enjoy his role as 'king of right wing snark' for another 25 years allowing that accident or ill-fate doesn't intervene. Yet our culture tells James that the evenings are closing in and that soon he will need to think about stairlifts, comfortable footwear and elasticated slacks.

The real issue here is one about careers and whether it is possible for someone to change horses once they've passed some arbitrary milestone - 45, 50, 55. It seems that the possibility of doing so diminishes - not because people do not have the capacity, capability or drive to change career post-50 but because society sees this as a slightly odd thing to do. This isn't the same as someone deciding to take redundancy from their mid-ranking professional or managerial position and set up a 'lifestyle busines' carving walking sticks or giving talks about Cretan ruins to cruise passengers. Rather it's about someone deciding to change career - so, in my case, I might opt to retrain as a town planner and call an end to the joys of politics or marketing.

The problems are two-fold - firstly employers don't believe you when you start again at the bottom of the heap and secondly a manager won't want to take on somebody older then they are (this is a visceral remnant of the respect for elders that we were brought up to believe in). That manager rationalises his ageism by saying to himself that the older person wouldn't fit in - "everyone in the office is under 35" our  manager would mumble to himself, "it just wouldn't work". Or else - and worse - the employer might explain away his bias by saying that the older person wouldn't be up-to-speed with modern technology. In my world of marketing all that 'digital' stuff needs young people doesn't it? What would some balding, old-time planner know about 'social media' or 'SEO'?

There is no earthly reason why a twenty-three year old should better understand digital media strategy (or anything else for that matter) than a fifty-three year old. Yet that is precisely what people making employment decisions will do, just as they will dismiss a thirty year career in another field as somehow irrelevant to the appointment decision. Essentially because they don't want to appoint an 'old' person.

We have to stop doing this for some very important reasons. Firstly the government now expects us to work to 67 and it's only a matter of time before we are expected to work to 70. Moreover this expectation is compounded by the pillage visited on private pensions by the greed and selfishness of governments. And secondly, there will be fewer young people available to fill all those jobs (and perhaps - at least in my field of marketing - an appreciation that, if the market consists mostly of older people it might be an idea to employ some older people who might understand better how that market works).

James Delingpole can rely on people like me punching the air with delight at his right-wing polemic but for others there's the prospect that the world doesn't want what they do any more. And if those people want to change and become town planners, marketing folk or digital advertising sales people then perhaps employers need to consider how to make it work. Not just because of that classic piece of lunatic New Labour legislation, the Equalities Act (which makes age a protected characteristic) but because those employers are missing out on some excellent people because they'd rather have a bunch of 25 year old recent graduates to boss about than a more questioning set of folk with twenty or thirty years of fascinating experience to bring to the job at hand.


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