Age is just a number, not an indicator of ability

Age is just a number, not an indicator of ability
Published: 25 March 2021

In my personal view the inauguration of President Biden was a breath of fresh air, democracy triumphing after a difficult four years and providing a new sense of purpose for the US. It also highlighted to me that age should not have the bearing on careers it currently does.

The inauguration perfectly encapsulated this. At one end of the age spectrum - President Joe Biden. At 78 years of age, he is the oldest person to be elected and all four of his predecessors – Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Bush Jr and Bill Clinton, are younger. At the other end, the youngest ever US Inauguration Poet, Amanda Gorman, who at just 22 delivered her powerful poem “The Hill We Climb”. Both Biden and Gorman captivated the audience speaking with conviction, integrity, poise, grace, passion, and credibility. Though both the “oldest ever”, and “youngest ever” in their respective fields they equally demonstrated they deserved to on that platform. Age didn’t matter.

We all have our unconscious biases; the small judgements we don’t realise we are making. In general people are getting better at checking themselves and challenging their thinking, especially in areas such as race, religion, gender or disability.  However, in my view we are not so good at challenging age-related biases.  

The Centre for Ageing Better’s survey in 2018 found that only 69% of people realised that age was a protected characteristic, much lower than for race, religion, gender or disability.  An example of how this manifests itself can be the view that older people are ‘overqualified’ or ‘won’t want to do a role’ because they are perceived as having too much experience. Or, that they have less energy or enthusiasm. I have seen many examples which demonstrate that this is wholly untrue.

The over 50’s is also where we are likely to see the biggest growth of workforce. A survey found that the population aged between 50 and the state pension age will increase from 26% in 2012 to 34% in 2050. This presents a huge opportunity for UK employers to tap into overlooked talent pools in the 50 plus work force.

Unseen age-related bias also effects younger employees, because certain characteristics such as gravitas, good judgement and credibility are unconsciously intertwined with age. Clearly experience can be beneficial. However, we also know that diversity of thought leads to better organisational performance, more innovation and improved comprehension of risks.  We have seen improvements in board diversity but overwhelmingly in areas such as gender and race rather than age.

At a minimum age discrimination is against the law. But more than that, allowing our unconscious biases to attach stereotypes to people based on their age may be preventing us from spotting genuine talent.  

Younger and older employees clearly have a great deal to offer, so how do UK employers harness this talent? Creating cross generational working groups and networks in organisations may help to improve understanding of the benefits that people of different ages bring. Mastercard have implemented a ‘Social Media Reverse Mentoring’ programme where young professionals offer one-on-one coaching time to older employees who want to become familiarised with the platforms.

Organisations need to look at their recruitment and retention process and ensure this reaches talent across all generations, is accessible, welcoming, and inclusive. Critically that those who are involved in the hiring process are cognisant about the judgements they are making based on their own preconceptions. Organisations should also create platforms which highlight the capability, accomplishments, and potential of employees from all generations. The inauguration platform of January 2021 clearly demonstrated to the world that age, really was, just a number.

For more information, please contact Amy Parkinson, a Associate Partner in the Financial Leadership Practice.

Categories: Finance Recruitment

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