Ageism Is Old Fashioned: Why You Should Nurture Older Executives

Forbes just published its first-ever list of women leaders of a certain age, “50 Over 50: Women Proving Success Has No Age Limit.” This is a welcome list for many, not only those in the age category covered, but also younger people hoping for long and meaningful careers. The attention paid to this elite group proves that older women, and older people in general, have plenty to contribute. This acknowledgement remains much-needed.

Despite the growing visibility of older women in positions of power in business, (Mary Barra, 59, Chair and CEO of General Motors; Jane Fraser, 53, newly-appointed CEO of Citigroup) the cohort as a whole is still undervalued and underrepresented. Future-of-work consultant Diana Wu David, author of Future Proof: Reinventing Work in an Age of Acceleration, says, “There was a day not long ago you wouldn’t know women over 50 exist if you looked at most media.”

Ageism combined with sexism exists not only on TV. ProPublica reported in 2018 that when IBM needed to cut jobs, it circulated a confidential planning document outlining a strategy that would “correct seniority mix.” Among other findings, ProPublica stated that, “IBM targeted people for layoffs and firings with techniques that tilted against older workers.” This year, Qualtrics and theBoardlist (an online talent marketplace connecting female leaders with global board opportunities) conducted a study of more than 1000 U.S. adults about the impact of covid on work. While men were nearly twice as likely as women to say that working from home during the pandemic positively affected their careers, more than a third of the men polled also said that their companies place too much emphasis on women in leadership.Now that people are living longer and “60 is the new 40,” as some like to say, it’s important for all leaders to recognise the talents of this group. Leaders should work harder to utilise, retain and promote older women.

Here are four key reasons why older workers are highly valuable.

The World’s Companies Need More Employees

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There is a growing labor shortage in many countries, and an aging population. In the U.S., there will be more people over the age of 65 than under 18 by 2035. In Japan, the primary working-age population (15 to 64) is forecast to decline from its peak of 87 million in 1995 to 69 million by 2030. Similar patterns can be seen in most developed countries. In China, concern about the aging population led to the end of its long-standing one-child policy in 2016. In May, 2021, China said couples can have up to three children. Older women—and older people in general—are needed to keep companies running.

Some young people may not want jobs that sounded appealing before the pandemic. This year has shifted many people’s priorities and their economic equation. In a recent New York Times article, Karen Fichuk, chief executive of the giant staffing company Randstad North America, said that workers are gaining new leverage over companies. “Companies are going to have to work harder to attract and retain talent.” With a clear talent gap looming, hanging onto and cultivating older employees makes sense.

Experienced Workers Have More . . . Well, Experience

Time on the job leads to real knowledge and connections, which facilitates success. And yet, so many people still assume that young folks always have better ideas and more energy. In fact, venture capital still tends to invest in companies with founders in their early 30s or younger, despite research by Harvard Business Review showing that the average age of most successful founders is 45.

As HBR study authors suggest, older workers create value through social networks and extensive and specific experience. These factors benefit all kinds of firms and increase with age. In a 2018 AARP study on the value of multigenerational workplaces, older employees were credited with passing on skills and knowledge, and acting, “as teachers [who] allow others to consider different perspectives, and make the workplace more productive.”

Older Workers Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Many older people have learned not to get needlessly ruffled by the setbacks, internal politics, budget constraints, and limited resource allocation common in the world of work. Experience brings perspective, also known as maturity. Younger people, still trying to prove themselves and less experienced assessing the lasting impact of today’s obstacle, may take challenges personally, react emotionally, and fret unnecessarily about typical office hurdles. Older people can bring much needed equanimity to the office, ratcheting down the drama and serving as good role models of stamina and calm competence.

Older Workers Mentor Others

Many older women leaders today make a point to mentor others. From the more than 10,000 nominees, the women chosen for the “50 Over 50” list are those who have also shown a commitment to “paying forward their after-50 success.” Many were nominated by women they’d mentored. Lori Hotz was nominated by mentee Sari Sharaby, who said that Lori, “Had a “hallmark trait of trusting and giving autonomy to her colleagues,” and generously shared her knowledge to, “see all her colleagues succeed.”

Mentoring younger women may have been less common among the “breaking the glass ceiling” set, the pioneering female executives who had to fight harder for any opportunity. But today, hiring senior women means bringing on leaders who will help their followers succeed. As Madeleine Albright has said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” There is a special place in heaven—and with savvy investors—for companies who go out of their way to bring and keep women on board.

“50 Over 50” makes for inspiring reading. It includes women CEOs and entrepreneurs, leaders in education, nonprofits, politics, sports, science (including one Nobel Laureate), literature, cooking, and more. It can’t name, of course, all of those who are adding value. Nor does it look beyond the U.S. Forbes plans to add three more “spotlight” lists this summer, focusing on women over 50 who are: “making an impact on the world; who are technological and artistic visionaries; and who are financial rainmakers.”

Let’s hope that this is the beginning—not the end—of a new and more universal embracing of the contributions of older women, and an expanded appreciation of older leaders all around us.


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