Age before beauty?

Jeff Dray considers the age divide in the workplace. Youth and vigour, as well as age and experience, have their place in support roles, and the combination of the two benefits everyone.

When I read job advertisements for "young go-ahead’"people wanted for exciting support roles, the cynic in me wonders whether they are really looking for dynamic or cheap people. Is youth and vigor more important than experience and wisdom? The truth is that we need a blend of both qualities to provide a rounded support experience.


Thinking about the age divide brought this picture into my mind: Papers were blowing around the office, causing havoc. It was particularly windy outside, and it was like a ticker-tape parade inside. The younger, fitter members of the team were racing around, grabbing pieces of paper, sorting them into order, and putting them back on the table, from where they blew away again.

The oldest member of the team rose slowly to her feet, walked to the window, and closed it. She then stooped to round up the pieces of paper that had escaped from her desk. Surely, if any proof were needed, this is an example of wisdom exceeding enthusiasm.

That scenario is maybe somewhat exaggerated, yet it is indicative of the kind of thing I have witnessed over the years.

In the UK it is very difficult for anyone over the age of 40 to change jobs; most employers are interested only in taking on people fresh from school or a university, and I’m not sure why.

To read some of the recruitment advertisements that appear in the UK, you would think that people over the age of 35 are ready for the knacker’s yard. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Admittedly it is harder to mold an older recruit into the standard company image, and it is harder to convince them that a low starting pay will be reviewed as the recruit progresses through the company, but think what the positives are. You get someone who is used to work and who is less likely to fail to appear after a wild night of clubbing, and you are buying a store of wisdom about life that even the best university cannot teach.

Back in the day, people in the UK would traditionally spend their working life with one company; the phrase "Job for Life" was used. Employers justify taking on younger people by stating that they will get more years of service from them, yet this is no longer the case. On average, people stay no longer than five years with an employer, so in reality there is little to be said against taking on a 55-year-old as opposed to an 18-year-old.

The truth is that we need a full age range: we need the energy of youth, but it often needs to be tempered with the experience and wisdom gained from a lifetime in the workplace. Some things can be taught at school or college; other things need to be experienced. A well-balanced workplace needs a blend of skills, not a set of company clones.

Not everybody has the best skill set for every task, but by building your team from a wide range of people, you can ensure that you do have all the skills at hand. There is an old saying: Jack of all trades, master of none.

What is your experience of how age differences play out in the workplace?