When does “very experienced” become “too experienced”? – By Sharon Slinger

A woman has 50 years of experience working as a professional in our industry, she’d be snapped up by companies with all that knowledge, wouldn’t she?

Surely you’d want that knowledge and experience involved in your project or team? What better way to teach junior members of staff the technical and personal skills to prosper in our industry?

So why does our industry constantly write people (particularly women) off at an early age?

I’ve had a few conversations recently about age discrimination, in particular for older workers. In 2011, the UK abolished the compulsory retirement age, this means that many people continue working for many years after they could retire, some for financial reasons, some because they want to give back, and some because they actually just really enjoy working. But many are getting disillusioned with the discrimination they are facing – examples are being side-lined for promotion, being given the dull jobs that nobody else wants, and not being given the training and development opportunities of others. And most concerning is that they feel they cannot move organisations because they will not get a job elsewhere. The frustrations culminate in them giving up work all together or leaving the industry, exacerbating the skills shortage that we have by losing experienced people.

By 2041, women will have an average life expectancy of 86, and men 83, yet we are stopping people advancing in their careers in their 50’s. I even heard of a training exercise where some young males had decided a woman of 35 wasn’t going to become a leader because “she was too old”. People have different life experiences, and are at their prime in differing life stages. Why would you not give everyone the opportunity to succeed, no matter what their age?

Age

Some assumptions around older workers are that they want to slow down, aren’t interested in their careers, lack stamina and aren’t tech savvy in this modern world. Maybe some of those assumptions are right for some older people, they are equally likely to be as right for younger people too. I am sure some companies are concerned about spending money on training someone who might retire soon, well it’s the millennials that are known as the “job-hopping generation”, not the baby boomers.

Age discrimination affects women more than men. To quote a friend of mine, the perception is that “if you’re an older man you’re distinguished, if you’re an older woman you’re flaky”. The gender bias that persists throughout early and mid-career continues into late careers. Women are more likely to be moved on, and particularly in our industry, feel very isolated at an older age. It surely can’t be right that women working in our industry are considering plastic surgery as an investment to prolong their career? It’s happening, and it’s got to stop.

So, what can organisations do to ensure they are inclusive to their older workers?

  • Build cross-generational networks – pair young and old together to learn from each other and embrace the differences
  • Sponsorship/ mentorship – it’s not only for younger team members, but older ones too
  • Have mixed-age interview panels, with set questions focusing on skills and ability
  • Ensure training and development is open to all based on job need
  • Train all your employees, particularly hiring managers, on age discrimination.
  • Ensure your gender networks are looking at young and old workers alike.

I believe it is down to organisations to change cultures and systems to ensure age discrimination doesn’t happen, but there are ways to help yourself too:

  • Know your value – understand how important you are to the business and be able to articulate that
  • Manage your career and communicate with line managers – make sure they understand you still want those exciting projects
  • Connect with younger workers – you could do this in a structured manner eg mentoring or helping with professional qualifications, or on a more informal basis, by just getting to know each other better
  • Challenge your own assumptions about age – don’t hold yourself back by assuming they’ll want a younger team, or that all young people just want to get rid of the older workers.
  • Keep in contact with your external network – you never know when they might be needed.

Ultimately, it comes down to having respect for each other. Young, old or middle-aged, everybody has something to offer, and it is that richness of diversity that makes great teams.

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