Why is ageism so rife?

Job candidates in their 50s can add real value to businesses. Lynda Ennis wonders why, at a time when skills are at a premium, so many manufacturers – consciously or unconsciously – ignore older talent?

Ageism Older Workers Workforce Skills - STOCK imageImagine a scenario where the selection panel for a senior executive role rejected a shortlisted candidate purely on the grounds that they were female, black or disabled.

Seems pretty unthinkable, doesn’t it? Now consider a scenario where a candidate is turned down because they are in their 50s, despite having all the necessary experience and skills for the job.

Just as unimaginable? Well no, apparently, judging by the experiences of the many candidates in their 50s or older who write to me about the struggles they face in applying for jobs.

Only last week, a mature job-seeker with heaps of senior-level experience in the automotive sector emailed me for help and advice, saying, “I have been surprised at how little impact I have been able to make when applying for roles – surprising to me considering the level of experience and the skill set I would bring to any business.”

I hear such stories from older candidates a great deal from the automotive industry, but it is an issue that stretches far beyond the sector.

This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

A report published last year by MPs on the Women and Equalities Committee claimed that more than a million people aged 50 or over are effectively locked out of the workplace in the UK, even though discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Missing out

Despite the progress that has been made in advancing the diversity and inclusion agenda, when it comes to hiring, there seems to be a widespread perception that excluding candidates on the grounds of age is not as discriminatory as racism, sexism or disablism.

It has been documented by the World Health Organisation, which includes in its definition of ageism: “Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalised’ of any prejudice, and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism.”

Recruitment Diversity Jobs Workers Skills - STOCK imageAll of which makes me very sad. Sad not just for the rejected candidates but for the companies who are turning their backs on a section of society that could add real value to their business.

It’s as frustrating as it is inexplicable. Why wouldn’t you want to hire someone with 25 years’ solid, highly relevant skills and experience?

I am a case in point myself. Business contacts who have only spoken to me on the phone   rather than face to face are often shocked when they find out I’m 56.

The perception is that I’m a good deal younger because of my energy levels and work ethic, which speaks volumes for the stereotypical attitudes towards older people.

The truth is that there are thousands of people just like me who have masses of energy, sharp brains, a powerful desire to work hard, finely honed skills and tons of knowledge and industry experience.

That’s why I practise what I preach at my own company, where approximately half of the people who work either full or part time are aged over 50.

The key thing they bring to the organisation is balance. For the younger staff members who are still maturing into their careers, their older colleagues are an invaluable sounding board and source of learning, filling in gaps in their knowledge and developing their professional skills.

For the more mature staff members, there is the satisfaction of passing on their wisdom and applying their experience to new challenges at a time in their life when using their skills in a fulfilling way is more important to them than chasing job titles.

Make UK festival ready to inspire future apprenticesThere is a mutual respect between the different age groups, and none of the egotistical and ultra-competitive toxicity that I’ve experienced in less diverse, less balanced working environments.

By bringing different ideas and perspectives on life and work, there is also a dynamic cross pollination that raises the performance of everyone. The team spirit is palpable.

Open mind, open door

Within my specialist area of the automotive industry, I am aware of some companies that do embrace age diversity and understand the importance of a balanced workforce. More power to their elbow.

But in too many companies across all sectors there seems to be an unspoken rule that senior executives are most productive in their late 30s or early 40s, and that everything is downhill after that.

To them I would simply say: keep an open mind about older candidates. If you don’t you could miss out on someone who would be superb for your organisation.

According to a government report, the proportion of people in the UK aged between 50 and the state pension age is projected to rise to 35% by 2050 – an increase of 8 million people compared to 2012.

The time will come when corporations will rely on this growing demographic to fill their leadership roles, so why not get ahead of the population curve and start now?

It’s not about ticking boxes in a diversity and inclusion strategy but making sensible hiring decisions that will enhance your business. There’s a pool of fantastic talent out there. Why would you want to miss out?


Lynda Ennis is the founder of Ennis & Co, an executive search organisation that specialises in the automotive sector.