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Career

Old dog, new tricks! Is age a barrier to career success?

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by Mark Smith

9 months ago

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This year, the semi-finals of the Australian Tennis Open have seen three veterans of the tennis world beat their younger rivals and be in contention for winning a grand slam, one of the world’s grandest sporting titles. Age it appears is not always the barrier to success that many of us believe it is and with the demographic bubble of the baby boomers now (or fast approaching), their 60’s age, is also becoming a greater issue in the recruitment sector. Age discrimination is not a new issue and in 2004 the Australian Federal Parliament enacted the Age Discrimination Act. 

Complaints of discrimination should first be made to the Human Rights’ Commissioner. So when Roger Federer won in five sets over his younger rival Stan Wawricnka, he won despite his age. When Venus Williams beat her fellow American to play her little sister, who is also in her mid- thirties, she did so without any rules to help her win. She was successful because she outplayed her opponent. So how does this translate to the world of employment and work? Are older workers being overlooked because they are simply older, or are they not being successful because they don’t have the skills to do the job? It’s a hard question to answer. Unlike the tennis players, older workers are not given the chance to show their prowess against their younger counterparts. 

Assumptions are made by hiring managers, both older and younger, about the demographic of the person who is best for the role for which they are recruiting. In most instances, this rules out older workers. On the other hand, many older workers assume they are unsuccessful because of their age and not because they don’t have the skills to meet the requirements of the job. If you are a mature age worker seeking new opportunities but seem to be having difficulty securing a new role, I would seek feedback from employers and recruiters, but don’t ask “Is it because I am too old?” 

Instead, you should be asking about the skills that would have made a difference to be successful in securing the role. Sometimes you may not like the answer you receive, so be prepared and ask yourself truthfully whether you do have the skills. “I can learn it” is not what an employer wants. I could learn to serve at 200kmph but I am pretty sure I would struggle to be selected ahead of Roger Federer. Sometimes the reason you are not successful is not because of a skills’ gap or because of your age. Sometimes the reason is simply that you may not fit in culturally in an organisation. Human beings do tend to hire people they like and you do need to keep in mind that sometimes you miss out because of these human intangibles. 

Age discrimination is deplorable. If you are an older worker who has been discriminated against then you should take action but before you contact the Commissioner, make sure you are completely confident you could match the skill set of your younger competitor and that you have thought about the human side of the recruitment decision.

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