In an era when most employment discrimination is considered unethical (and often illegal), one prejudice continues to thrive unchallenged at work — ageism.
It is true that people’s mental and physical abilities change in a variety of ways as we age. But as with all other generalizations, what is true for the group does not apply equally to each individual. There are countless examples of people who did their most creative and impactful work in their later years, including the creators of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Taser, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola. And then there are all the unrecognized producers — people who continue to quietly knock out successes while offering unparalleled wisdom and mentorship to their colleagues.
As an executive coach, I have come to believe that the “perfect” age for business leaders is between 40 and 45. Not because of any inherent ability change, but because of perception. At that age, people see you as old enough to know what you’re doing and young enough to still have runway ahead of you. As a result, many business leaders under 40 try to look and act older, while many over 45 try desperately to convey vigor and youthfulness. Nora Ephron gave us a great example when she attributed the longevity of women’ careers to one significant factor: artificial hair color.
Smart business leaders know that making performance predictions based on demographic characteristics, such as race, gender, or religion, is likely to be inefficient and inaccurate. You’ll get too many false positives — people you hired or promoted based on their group membership who don’t work out. And you’ll have an untold number of false negatives — people you didn’t hire who would have been great. The same holds true for age discrimination in hiring, retention, and promotion.
This is why I was dismayed to read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal calling for a mandatory retirement age. The authors, Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum, argue that because there is no set date for people to leave the workforce, and because age discrimination is illegal, “employers hesitate to hire middle-aged workers, who may stay on the job long after their pay has exceeded their productivity.” The authors recommend building a mandatory retirement age into employment contracts, or offering financial incentives to get workers over 60 out of the workforce.
I don’t get it. Don’t employers have expectations and goals for each worker? Don’t they review workers’ performance on a regular basis, reward them if they are going a good job, and coach, move, or fire them if they are not meeting expectations? Why should this be any different for workers over 60 than it is for younger workers?
The attitudes echo the shocking age bias I found among my fellow students when I went to business school. I thought we’d managed to move forward in the intervening years.
We don’t allow workers to force women out of the workplace during their childbearing years because they might take time off and disrupt the flow of the business. Forcing older workers out because they might become less productive is equally illogical.
And by the way, don’t give me the argument that older people should step aside to make room for younger workers. That is exactly the same argument used at the end of World War II to force women to hand their jobs over to men. It was unfair then and it is unfair now.
As an older business leader myself, I want to be judged on the quality of my work — period. If I’m not cutting it, then let me go. But don’t assume that because I’m a grandmother I can no longer provide top value in the workplace.
Employers are justified in wanting to hire top performers, regardless of their age. If you are interested in learning more about how to select, develop, and retain older top talent, we have resources to help you. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.