Good News for the Old, Overqualified and Overlooked

March 18, 2011

It is expected that a significant percentage of the baby boomer generation will drive right past the Freedom 55 highway exit. For many the goal of early retirement will have proven to be unattainable hype, while for others the ups and downs of working will appear more attractive than the prospects of working up and down the local lawn bowling leadership board. This is not to say that boomer priorities and goals will remain static however for they will not, and thus organizations should actually brace for a flood of not only older but overqualified individuals applying for all manner of roles. Firms will be forced to deal with their biases towards both.

Organizations reflexively dismiss the overqualified on the grounds that they are too seasoned, too risky, too smart, too educated, too expensive, too big, too competent or simply too much for what is believed to be needed. Overqualified executives make hiring managers uncomfortable presenting as they do an incongruent, off-kilter image that cannot be easily reconciled. Why would an individual with those qualifications, with that breadth of experience want this job? There is a fear that such individuals may be disruptive, may flee upon finding a better suited role or may simply quit upon sobering up to the reality of the role they accepted. At the end of the day organizations cannot shed the belief that the more-than-qualified will be less-than-satisfied.

Alas the facts don’t appear to fully align with the fear. A recent Harvard Business Review reports on a study that concludes that over-qualified employees actually perform better than other employees. They also quit with no greater frequency than others. That’s right, they are more productive and stable. The key selection factor, according to the study, is the motivation of the over-qualified employee in taking the job in question. If they pursued the role for life style/life stage reasons or because they were attracted to the values of the employer, there is a high likelihood that they will remain with that firm. The other key is autonomy in decision-making. If the overqualified do not feel empowered to do the job for which they were hired they will be a lot more dissatisfied than others and more likely to act upon that unhappiness. Success then is a matter of aligning the motivation of the candidates with the maturity and values, or lack thereof, of the company hiring.

There is more…. In a recent article titled "The U-Bend of Life", the Economist magazine reported that people get happier as they age. They argue that overall individual happiness is correlated to four main factors: gender, personality, external circumstances and age. In the instance of age, unhappiness builds with the pressures, anxieties and responsibilities of life, “with most people being at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. The global average is 46”. After that a measure of contentment begins to settle in as ambition gradually gives way to acceptance. People become happier, have fewer arguments and come up with better solutions to conflicts. They become better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. And happier, they become more productive and healthier too. As the article concludes, “the cheerfulness of the old should help counteract their loss of productivity through declining cognitive skills – a point worth remembering as the world works out how to deal with an ageing workforce.” And an increasingly over-qualified one too!

About the author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.