Tuesday, March 26, 2019

When age is not just a number!


“Though it is not written in the job specifications, we have been asked by the client to look for a candidate below 45 years of age for the CHRO role”, said the executive search consultant who was asking for a reference.

“We decided to make the job offer to this particular candidate mainly because she was younger as compared to the other equally good candidates. We wanted to hire someone who can be developed into more senior level leadership roles. We want to be able to see the ‘next to next role’ for the candidate before we make a hiring decision.”, said the business leader.

These days, it not so rare to come across statements like ones above.  They make me wonder if they demonstrate some sort of ‘ageism’ at the workplace or if there are other more ‘rational’ reasons involved! Is age the issue or is it being used as a (convenient) ‘proxy’ for other factors?

The typical 'reasons' why someone comes up with a statement like the first one (the one made by the executive search consultant)  include things like ‘decision to bring in younger candidates at the CXO level as part of a business transformation exercise’ , ‘the other CXOs being in the same age bracket’ , ‘a workforce that is predominantly Gen Y’, ‘the need to bring in fresh thinking at senior levels’ etc.  It is true that the experience range specified for many roles is coming down. Now there is a greater emphasis on learning agility as opposed to experience. Also, knowledge can be acquired much faster these days.  It is also possible that the older (more experienced) candidates are more costly. Yes, there could also be cases where long years of experience is assumed to create some sort of rigidity and lack of flexibility/appetite for risk taking/creativity/tech-savviness.

One is more likely to come across statements similar to the second one (the one made by the business leader) in MNCs. Having greater runway left for the career is indeed valued especially in those cases where there is a fixed retirement age. Yes, there are still some traditional companies where higher number of years of experience is an advantage. This brings up an interesting question – Isn’t the very concept of a ‘mandatory retirement age’ (which is the norm in both private and government organizations in countries like India) a clear sign of ageism?

In domains like HR, there is an even more basic question that we need to look at – ‘’Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop?”. If the answer is “No”, then it creates a fundamental issue for the bulk of the HR professionals who are in the 20+ years’ experience range.  Of course, there would be many senior HR professionals would continue to grow in their career within business organizations. But, here we are talking about career options available to bulk of the population - HR professionals with 20+ years’ of experience  within business organizations. There is also the dimension of motivation and meaning, apart from that of just being employed (Please see ‘Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR’ and ‘If you hang around in HR for too long’ for more details).  

I do wonder what this means for mid-career professionals. There is always the risk that one can get replaced with someone who is more in line with the evolving requirement of the job and/or at a lower cost. The text book answer to this kind of a problem is that one constantly learns(keep the skill set relevant), takes up roles of increasing responsibility (where the experience adds value) and ensures that one’s contribution to the organization is much higher than one’s salary cost. This is a must especially in those  situations where the company can bill a person in particular role only at a particular rate and hence there is no economic sense in employing a person unless the loaded salary cost is significantly lower than the billing rate.  There is merit in the advice that one should try to revise one’s resume once in six months and if one is unable to make significant additions to the resume in two such cycles, one should look for a role change internally or externally. Of course, all these are easier said than done!

We do see an increasing number of mid-career professionals taking up consulting/freelancing kind of options. The trouble is just that majority of those mid-career professionals are unlikely to earn at least as much as they were earning in their regular job. Yes, there are a few who make it really big. There are also quite a few who use this opportunity to reinvent themselves and configure some sort of ‘portfolio life and career’ that is more aligned to their higher calling or more conducive to their self-actualization journey.

Any thoughts/comments?

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