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They're older - and they should know

They're older - and they should know

Employers simply do not value older workers.

The voters in the United States were presented with some historic choices in the past election: would they vote for a woman? For a black

man? For a 72-year-old?

Each candidate - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain - was

battling centuries of prejudice. And McCain, a Vietnam War hero,

struggled under the mantle of age just as much as the others sought to

emerge from preconceptions around gender and race.

A Gallup Poll after the election this month showed senior citizens

were the only age group that favoured McCain, with formerly die-hard

Democrat voters switching to the Republican Party in order to vote for

one of their own.

UK-based leadership consultant Julie Perigo says ageism is one of the

most resilient taboos. It clings like a barnacle despite all the

research that shows the effectiveness, adaptability and loyalty of

people in their later working years. And it persists despite the fact

that governments are aware that they cannot afford to continue to let

workers retire, as the population ages and the birth rate declines.

Employers, too, should know that there is no sustainable future for

their businesses if they cannot recruit and retain older workers -

there just aren't enough skilled younger people around.

"But there are a lot of companies that don't actually get it," says Perigo.

Part of the problem, she says, is that the age prejudice is rarely challenged.

If people feel they have been discriminated against because of their

race, gender, religion or disability, there are well-funded support

organisations that can help them state their case.

Age discrimination, however, usually creeps up on people. Some of them

(white, well-educated and male) have never been the butt of prejudice

before and do not know how to respond to the situation, Perigo says.

She has recently published a book on the issue, Winners in the Second

Half (Wiley & Sons 2008), to help executives aged 50 and older to

negotiate the challenges and decisions that come with suddenly being

identified as "one of the old hands".

She writes of one advertising executive in his late 50s who decided to

return to his highly successful career after two years of

semi-retirement. First of all, the recruiters who previously had

courted him were elusive and vague about his prospects. He was "too

experienced" or wrong for the culture.

He bypassed the recruiters and went straight to his old contacts

within the firms - the same story.

"Had I blotted my copybook in a way I hadn't realised before I stepped

out 2 1/2 year ago? Had the market changed so much that my type of

creative, client and management skills had suddenly become redundant?

Had I lost my touch, and everyone knew except me?" he asked.

"My age clearly bothered them. I'd been there myself, I knew that too.

I'd always said, 'The ad industry is a young industry', and I counted

myself as one of the young right until I semi-retired a couple of

years ago.

"I'd come back on the scene with huge energy and excitement and a

conviction that I'd actually 'got it' about the creative side. And

there was nothing I needed to prove about myself any more, just a

desire to do a great job with some great people.

"I'd got ideas that felt newer and more bleeding edge than anything

I'd been involved with before. Yet, with all the knockbacks, I felt my

confidence gradually beginning to slide."

It took him another year, but he partnered with two friends and set up

a small operation with a couple of "well remunerated contracts" and

says he is now glad that he didn't go back into his old comfort zone.

Perigo says one of the empowering decisions made by this executive was

to start pulling up recruiters and industry contacts when he felt they

were being ageist.

Confronting the subject of age discrimination is essential if people

are to overcome it, she says.

"At the leadership levels, there is a huge reticence to talk about the

subject because they, themselves, are embarrassed about being a

certain age," she says.

"And, because it is a taboo subject, it is not going to have that open

dialogue which explodes the myths about age.

"It is only when people who feel the prejudice get up and fight back

that prejudice does explode."

While women tend to "get over" the embarrassment factor and lobby for

their rights, the men who dominate the numbers in the executive ranks

retreat in fear before they get tarred with the "old and past-it" brush.

"You can't dismantle something if you are not willing to put up your

hand to say it exists," says Perigo.

Perigo, who lived in Australia for 20 years (10 years working in

executive search), points to former Australia and New Zealand Banking

Group chief John McFarlane as an example of a man who refused to run

from the stigma of age.

McFarlane, who retired last year at age 59, enhanced his bank's

diversity policy and became a member of the prime minister's task

force on workforce ageing.

McFarlane says in her book: "More and more I ask myself: why am I

here? I am here for a purpose. Everyone is. I know I have not yet

fulfilled it.

"I have a lot of years ahead and I believe it is my responsibility,

but also my privilege, to be a contributing member of society beyond

banking too."

When Perigo interviewed him, McFarlane was open about the trepidation

he felt about moving into a new stage in his life.

"He said he knew it wasn't going to be all beer and skittles," Perigo says.

Perigo says that men often have a harder time with age discrimination

than their female peers and looks to her career in executive recruitment, when company boards preferred to appoint a post-50 woman, rather than a man the same age.

"Once women reached their 50s, they almost became more sought-after," she says.

There could be a number of factors at work here: an experienced

mid-50s woman is a "catch" for boards who are conscious of the need to

feminise this male-dominated bastion.

A man, however, could fall foul of a "been there done that" attitude

from a board which wants a new appointee to bring something different

to the table.

But not much has changed for younger women - a situation reflected in

Australia's poor performance in appointing women to boards. Women hold

only 8.3 per cent of board positions, down from 8.7 per cent in 2006.

Perigo says a younger woman is seen as less desirable than an older

woman or mid-50s man.

Speculating on the reason for this, she says it could be sexual

politics: a pre-menopausal woman is still too threatening for the old

boys club.

Philip Crenigan, director of Sydney-based executive search firm

deJager and Associates, concurs, saying Perigo's observations reflect

what he has seen in the boardrooms in this country.

Fairfax Business Media

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