Ageism is pervasive

We Need To Change The Career Timetable In Our Heads

Camilla Cavendish

Camilla Cavendish

Senior Fellow at Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government
1 article 

A new global survey shows widespread fears of age discrimination

I was recently in a meeting with a partner of a global consulting firm, who surprised me by asking for advice about her next move. She’s 57, at the top of her game, with a great roster of clients, but her firm retires staff at 60. The organisation is nimble, modern and pioneering – except, it seems, in its employment practices.

Most of us are no longer "old" at 60, but employers still tend to think backwards from that number. I've met headhunters who don't put up anyone over 50, except for board roles. I've interviewed professionals in their 50s who've been made redundant and can't get back in. Emma, a skilled marketing executive, says she's close to giving up, aged 56. She does't mention her age on her resume, she says, but her experience gives her away.

In a new global survey, over a quarter of Generation X and nearly half of Baby Boomers say age is the main factor barring them from job opportunities. Evidence backs them up. When US researchers have sent off realistic but fictitious resumes to recruiters, they've found that older workers are significantly less likely to get an interview than younger ones: Experience? Loyalty? Doesn't count for much.

Many employers equate youth with digital skills and adaptability. Less often acknowledged is that "young" can also mean “cheap”.  But I don't think that's the whole story. Psychologically, many of us still cling to the notion that we will work flat out in our 30s, "make it" in our 40s and peak in our 50s. Yet this career timetable in our heads shrinks the talent pool. It squashes our greatest work intensity into the period which for many of us is marked "child-rearing". And it pushes too many people out of work with 20, even 30 years of good health still ahead of them.

We need a mindset change. Whether as employers or employees, we need to start thinking backwards from 75, not 60. We must also stop equating age with seniority and higher pay - otherwise we could price ourselves out of the workplace. Longer lives can be deeply fulfilling - but not if 50 remains a cliff edge.

Camilla Cavendish is a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and author of Extra Time: 10 Lessons for an Aging World (Harper Collins)