Age Bias and an Aging Executive Workforce

December 15, 2010

It is an employment taboo, forbidden from consideration. Yet few would disagree that it effects countless employment decisions each and every day. As headhunters, we see it in the cracks and crevices of our search assignments with resumes absent of key dates, oblique questions from clients and candidates alike, and a palpable awkwardness around selected hiring decisions. It is age bias, and a tsunami of aging baby boomers is about to take the issue from the shadows into the light of day.

On the surface, fifty-plus executives have a lot going for them. They promise some measure of experience, maturity, wisdom (the cynic might call this treachery), reliability and perhaps even efficiency of effort that can be beneficial to organizations. However, in the eyes of many employers these potential benefits are offset by concerns that the mature executive is less driven, aggressive, energetic, hungry and risk tolerant. In this view, age dulls the motivational edge to work long and hard. Cognitive capacity also declines with age, as does the ability to deal with complexity, assess novel information and make decisions. At the very least naysayers will say that the gray set have a shorter shelf life, limiting upward mobility and may well be prone to more absence due to illness.

When it comes to gauging the workplace relevance of age, companies have always been Maslow fans, wanting employees driven to survive rather than self-actualize. Ironically, these views are entrenched in the very same generation now under scrutiny, one conditioned to correlate career progress with hard work, initiative, stamina and sacrifice. And this is the same generation that has paid a heavy price for such conditioned views, with high levels of divorce, latch-key parenting, and compromised health. For the baby boomer generation, ageism questions whether there is anything left in the tank for corporations to siphon.

Like most ‘isms’ (sexism and racism included), ageism lives on the oxygen of broad generalizations. All companies and jobs are aggregated as benefiting from youth while all older executives are assigned the negative wear and tear attributes of age. This of course does hold up to even a modicum of scrutiny. Octogenarian auteur Clint Eastwood has refined his craft with age and countless Steven Jobs 2.0s are decidedly more effective CEOs with the benefit of experience, time and adversity. Supreme court judges, turnaround executives, practitioners of many stripes, and many other roles also appear to improve with age, to a point.

If gross generalizations are unproductive, with what should they be replaced? No rocket science here I suspect. Roles and performance measures defined more rigorously with attributes specified to deliver those results. Candidates evaluated individually with more formal testing to gauge motivation, drive, cognitive capacity and other attributes, to the extent these are job related. The traditional mindset of hiring with long term succession considerations is mixed with hiring to address specific issues, stages of growth and context. More contract roles, more mentor roles, and less knee-jerk rejection of the overqualified and of over-hiring. And candidates need to get their reflective houses in order around where they are in their careers, their portfolio of skills, what they want to do, what they can do, and for how long going forward.

One final point…. One of the more delicious ironies in debating the utility of aging boomers is that the so-called more desirable young employees entering the workforce today are not exactly proving to be paragons of initiative, drive, ambition or workaholism. The children of the boomer generation grew up watching Dad and Mom rack up those billable hours. Let me rephrase that, they grew up occasionally watching Dad or Mom, every other weekend and Wednesdays, rack up those billable hours and today appear to want none of that life. Many of this young generation seem to be opting out of the game, refusing to be defined by, or shackled to, the boomer generation’s definition of career ladders and how to climb them. Meanwhile employers are lamenting the reduced work ethic and drive, as well as the sense of entitlement that appears to define this young, coddled, ‘self esteem’ generation. Wait a minute, are we once again dealing in gross generalizations?…you betcha!

In the end, age is a dangerous criteria by which to summarily judge talent. Judge the person, not the packaging.

About Author

Robert Hebert, PhD is Managing Partner of executive search firm StoneWood Group Inc. He can be reached @ rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or at 416.365.9494x777