The costly bias against older workers
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The costly bias against older workers

Harvard Business Review posted an interview with MIT professor Ofer Sharone about the limited job prospects for older workers, especially the long-term unemployed. I agree with most everything Sharone says, but I want to put a bit of a different spin on it. In the interview, he addresses the excuses people use when they refuse to consider hiring older, LTU workers–skills mismatch, underemployment, and fear that they won’t stick around in general.

First, there’s the obvious point that I don’t see made often enough–if the job market were robust, none of these excuses would prevent businesses from hiring older workers, and the problem of long-term unemployment wouldn’t really exist because everybody who wants to work would have a job. Indeed, if economic growth were strong enough, people would be begging retirees to come back to work. This already happens in specific fields that enjoy full employment. I know I write this every time I write anything related to the economy, but it can’t be said often enough. The number one demand we should make as voters is that the federal government pursue policies that lead to greater economic growth.

Now I want to write a few paragraphs for people who are in the position to hire. I think it is inarguable that there’s a bias against hiring older workers in just about every field. I know the Web business well, and I know that it is lousy with ageism. From an economic perspective, this is painfully wrongheaded.

Recruiting great people is probably the most difficult task facing anyone whose job includes hiring. The competition for good people is intense, candidates are tough to evaluate, and the costs of getting it wrong or failing to fill key jobs can be really high. Plus, hiring isn’t a whole lot of fun. As a hiring manager, I’m always looking for an inefficiency that can be exploited. Bias against older workers is a truly spectacular inefficiency.

While you may disagree with the specifics of the 10,000 hour rule, at some reductive level it’s obviously true. Ten thousand hours is five years of full time work. If someone’s been in the work force 20 years, they’ve invested enough time to master four things, and one of those things is usually showing up to work and getting things done. Brilliance is great, but experience can be better, and there are plenty of people out there who are both brilliant and experienced. Age bias somehow makes it hard to see that some older workers are former young geniuses who’ve added a couple of decades of relevant experience since they started out.

The second advantage is that older workers have an actual track record of stuff they’ve delivered, and often that’s lots of lots of stuff. They’ve usually worked on all sorts of projects good and bad, with all kinds of managers good and bad. This track record makes it easier to evaluate them during the interview process. The tough part with older workers is that you have to be somewhat clever when you’re hiring, because you can’t afford the older workers who are obviously great. They’re pulling down huge paychecks at places like Google or Facebook running engineering teams or inventing the next generation of the tools you rely on.

The third advantage is that older workers can often be a useful stabilizing influence and source of perspective in an organization. Having people around who saw the highs and lows of the dot com boom is not a bad thing. If you’re in finance, having people around who remember both the 2008 financial crisis and the savings and loan crisis from the 80’s is probably a good idea. After reading The Soul of a New Machine, I’d love to work with anyone from that team. They know things about working on a high pressure skunkworks project that anybody could learn from. Things aren’t that different than they used to be, but if you don’t work with anyone who’s been around awhile, you’d never know that.

Here’s the catch. There are a fair number of people who discover over time that their profession isn’t really something they’re passionate about, even if they started out that way. Maybe they don’t love the work as much as they thought they would at one time, or maybe that love was beaten out of them by a succession of crappy managers and sucky jobs. Keeping the fires burning brightly over the long term is a skill unto itself. When you’re interviewing older workers, you’re interviewing people who may have already figured out that for them, the job is just a job, but need to keep bringing a paycheck home every week. Regardless of how they get there, people who aren’t passionate about either their work or the mission can bring the whole team down.

Passion is the number one thing I look for at an interview. A fair number of people are obviously brimming with sincere passion for the company, or some aspect of the job, or something that will propel them to show up every day with the kind of energy that makes work fun. For those that aren’t, the best approach is to find a topic that makes their eyes light up, whether it’s programming, or stamp collecting, or Seinfeld, and then comparing that level of passion to their passion when they talk about the work they’ll be doing.

Right now, older people are an undervalued asset. Smart business people will figure out how to take advantage of that inefficiency. I’m not just saying that because I turned into an older person when I wasn’t paying attention.

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