Is 30 the new 50?

Is 30 the new 50?

Should turning 30 induce a panic attack over your employment prospects?

Silicon Valley, the globally recognised pinnacle of technological innovation, is one of the most ageist places in the US, according to a recent article in the New Republic.

It claimed that an increasing number of 20-something tech workers in the Bay area of San Francisco are considering getting hair transplants, plastic surgery and Botox, so they don’t appear “old” to younger colleagues, prospective employers and venture capitalists obsessed with youth.

According to the US magazine, venture capitalists consider older entrepreneurs much less attractive, instead supporting their younger counterparts with millions on the chance their next big idea gives rise to a start-up that exceeds beyond expectations.

Keeping them happy are workplaces such as Dropbox, where workers scoot around the San Francisco headquarters on skateboards, play ping-pong into the night, and behave more like carefree college students than responsible, paid employees.

It’s a culture that’s at odds with the reality. In truth, more Americans over 55 are starting successful businesses than those in the 20-to-30-year age bracket, according to research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The age debate rages in Australia as well.

The federal Budget handed down in May proposed increasing the age at which you could access the age pension in Australia to 70 (currently it’s 65, rising to 67 in 2023). This is in contrast to the most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows people who retired in the past five years quit work at an average age of 61.5.

Convincing companies to hire and retain older workers is a big challenge, which is why the recent Budget proposed an A$10,000 phased bonus for those who take on a 50+ worker.

So is the hard truth that, despite the best-intentioned efforts, when it comes to the workplace, youth still rules? Or is it just the digerati who are riding the youth wave?

Steve Crowe had more than a three-decade media career behind him when he attended a job interview at a publishing company.

“I thought the Italian suit was a good idea at the time,” the grey-haired 60-year-old says, “but when I walked in and saw these two guys in their 20s in ripped jeans and T-shirts, the uniform of the creative industry, I knew it was all over.”

The pair gave his CV a rudimentary glance and the whole interview lasted about three minutes. He didn’t get the job.

“Ageism is alive and well and it permeates beyond IT because of people’s subconscious biases against older people,” argues Associate Professor Julie Cogin, the deputy dean of the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

In a common recruitment scenario – as in Crowe’s case – an older applicant is often passed over for a younger person going for the same position, because the HR manager believes that individual will not learn or adapt as quickly, they have a fixed mindset, they would not report happily to a younger boss and would take off more sick days.

“The point is these are prejudices and haven’t been validated by fact,” Cogin says.

"Ageism is alive and well and it permeates beyond IT because of people’s subconscious biases against older people." – Professor Julie Cogin, UNSW

“In some cases, research has confirmed the opposite.”

Last year a study of workers by Essex Business School in the UK challenged these perceptions, finding that age didn’t determine a person’s commitment and productivity levels at work. This research reinforced findings from two earlier studies of German car manufacturers; at one BMW factory an assembly line solely of workers over 50, for example, was 7 per cent more productive than one of younger workers.

Despite age discrimination being illegal in Australia, international recruitment company Hays still often receives requests from HR managers for “a young worker to fit into a team of 20-somethings”, says Kathy Kostyrko, one of the company’s directors based in Canberra.

“We give them a shortlist of diverse candidates, but then because of their bias, the mature age workers may not even be considered for an interview,” she says.

However, elsewhere attitudes are slowly changing, Kostyrko adds, and many employers are happy to offer jobs to older workers.

“Thankfully, for executive positions and senior roles, a bit of grey hair is seen as an advantage and evidence that you have the skills and knowledge required,” she says. 

“Really an employee’s attitude is everything. You could have an enthusiastic 70-year-old, willing to be engaged in the company, or a 30-year-old who is sitting back and complaining.”

Kostyrko says there is cause for hope as the community sector and specific employers such as Bunnings and Westpac are forging ahead against ageism. 

Jane Counsel, head of diversity at Westpac, says that because one in five of their employees is over 50, the bank has progressively become more conscious of these “prime of life” workers’ needs and the importance of mapping their futures.

“We want to look at their careers, assist them with financial planning and transition to retirement,” she says.

These employees are in a mixture of roles ranging from head office, to frontline sales, commercial and retail banking, and reflect Westpac’s ageing client base.

And contrary to the New Republic report, Silicon Valley does show support for its relative elders, insists Melbourne-born Ned Dwyer, 31, founder of web design start-up Elto.

He recently moved to San Francisco and reckons the emphasis on youth is largely a media beat-up – and an exception, not the rule.

“Really, once you turn 30 it doesn’t mean you’ve passed your use-by date,” says Dwyer who appeared on the 2014 INTHEBLACK Young Business Leaders list.

He adds that companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and VSCO Cam (a camera app similar to Instagram) are businesses that hire more mature employees and have facilities to cater for their needs.

“Some start-ups who are at the early stage of development may still have that ‘beer-pong’ fraternity feel about them, but many more established tech companies have a family-friendly culture with daycare centres, family days out in the park and are happy to be super-flexible,” Dwyer says.

So cancel that nip ’n’ tuck.

Grey power

Attitudes towards mature workers vary across the world, says Dr Keri Spooner, a senior lecturer in the School of Management at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“Older people are venerated for their knowledge in Asian cultures,” she says.

“In countries such as China or Thailand, with compulsory retirement ages, most workers look forward to retirement as an entitlement.”

In Germany, with a low birth rate and an impending skills shortage, companies are taking measures such as offering longer holidays and more flexible work arrangements in a bid to dissuade older skilled workers from retiring.

Finland, with Europe’s most rapidly ageing population, is a trailblazer. Its national “active ageing” policy to ensure people stay in the workforce longer has given rise to flexible working arrangements, healthy workplaces, lifelong learning, well-developed care systems (for children, grandchildren and aged care) and retirement saving schemes.

Age against the machine

Companies such as Google Australia – despite its youthful image – hire people of diverse ages to assist their wide range of customers.

“Age does not matter at Google. Ideas and energy do, and of course age can influence both of those,” says Raul Vera, a senior engineer at the company.

Julie Cogin of the Australian School of Business says that the best employers celebrate multi-generational workforces.

“In many cases we are now seeing as many as four generations in a workplace and they can all learn from each other,” she says.

“It’s interesting because often the needs of the 55+-year-olds are similar to those in their early 20s. They aren’t driven by financial rewards, they have other motivations.”

Many older workers want flexibility, so they can support their children, assist in the care of their grandchildren or their own parents. Many are also happy to step out of the day-to-day operations of the business a bit more and act as a coach or mentor, to pass on some of their company knowledge, experience and wisdom.

This article is from the July 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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