Getting older has never concerned me much, other than avoiding the shaving mirrors found in hotel bathrooms that reveal, in high definition, the creases and crinkles I have earned over the years. However, three incidents have given me pause for thought.
The first occurred when a client asked us to remove a facilitator from a leadership programme since “he is too old to be working with our young, dynamic managers”.
A manager confessed she was at a loss to know what to do with a number of 50-plus year olds in her team
The second was a discussion about whether to recruit and train an older worker, knowing she might retire in two or three years.
The third came in a coaching conversation when a manager confessed she was at a loss to know what to do with a number of 50-plus year olds in her team.
In the first instance, the client refused our request that the facilitator, a respected academic with an international reputation in the field of leadership and management, get the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities to the participants and to obtain their feedback. The facilitator graciously withdrew from the programme.
In the second, the discussion divided the appointments panel. Some members strongly believed the organisation could not afford to invest resources in someone close to retirement. Others argued the organisation should only focus on recruiting the best person for the job, regardless of age. They thought that anyone could choose to leave at any time and recruiting young workers didn’t guarantee retention.
The panel offered the younger candidate the post.
The third instance revealed that the manager needed to introduce substantial changes to working practices.
She held a firm belief that the older workers would “need to be managed differently”. When asked, in what way she should manage them differently, she replied that she believed her older workers were less flexible, less able to cope with the new technology that was to be introduced and would need more “baby minding”.
She added that she felt it “wasn’t appropriate for them to be in the new work environment she was creating”.
In all of these situations, we felt that principles were compromised in the name of pragmatism. The reality is that we have an ageing population in terms of staff, customers and clients. More of us are choosing to work beyond traditional retirement ages. Were the default retirement age to be scrapped, this opens up even more possibilities.
There are sound business reasons why we should not marginalise people because of their age. Companies such as B&Q value the abilities and life experiences of their older workers and find that they can relate more easily to customers.
Legislation alone will not overcome prejudice. It may be true that young aspiring leaders do not respond well to older facilitators. It may be true that a younger candidate is a better bet for long-term retention. It may also be true that older workers need a different management approach. But can we please have some evidence and informed debate?