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
"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
"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
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
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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