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The trouble with talent is… the question of age

Written by Lyndsey Simpson on Wednesday, 04 June 2014. Posted in Talent, People

The word ‘talent’ shouldn’t be preserved for the younger generation. The over-55s have a lot to offer too, argues Lyndsey Simpson

The trouble with talent is… the question of age

Can you be ‘talent’ and over 55? Or is being seen as talent the preserve of ‘up and coming’ youngsters? Why is this subject such a taboo? We are, after all, getting older every day rather than younger, so why aren’t we able to just talk about this topic openly and rationally?

A significant proportion of the businesses that I co-own are in recruitment. Our teams are asked every hour of every day to find talent. None of our customers would ever say they don’t want us to present any older candidates when presented with this talent brief but, in reality, this is where actions speak louder than words in terms of which candidates are interviewed and selected. Is the subject avoided because we are all afraid of being cast as ageist or being sued for breaching the Age Discrimination Act? Perhaps. Or do we carry an unconscious bias that talented people are by definition hungry, ambitious and on the way up? Is there an invisible age line that is crossed after which they cease to be termed as talent but are instead experienced, a safe pair of hands or a technical expert?

As I’m sure we are all aware, the national retirement age is getting higher and higher and with equal rights comes women retiring at the same age as men. But we are an ageing population. 10 million people in the UK are currently aged over 65. By 2030, it will be 15.5 million and by 2050, 19 million. Now, if our population was growing at the same rate, there would be no issue, but it’s not. Fertility rates are continuing to drop so there are less children replacing the working population and going by current trends, by 2030 there will be a shortage of 2 million workers in the UK aged 16-65. Unless we are going to lower the working age and send children to work at 13 in the future, there is only one direction we’ll be going and that’s older.

So, with the backdrop set, let’s get back to answering the all-important important question: does age affect talent?

It’s no secret that as we grow older we all start to feel the effects of age a little more, both mentally and physically. This can begin to have a serious detrimental effect on how we perform in a professional capacity regardless of whether it’s our body or mind letting us down. With the ever-changing face of technology and increasing use of social media within business, there is a never-ending supply of things to learn. As a result it is all too easy to fall ‘behind the times’ and find ourselves a little out of touch. Equally, our body is not a machine, thus with each passing decade levels of energy start to diminish just at a time when we are expecting our people to work longer and harder than ever before.

Clearly though, there are people who buck this trend and keep themselves physically and mentally fit and put in extra effort to keep up with the pace of change. In my business, The Curve Group, one of our most energetic, engaged, driven, high-performers is a nimble 62. She has no intention of retiring anytime soon and I wouldn’t hesitate in rating her as ‘talent’. However, she will also openly admit that before she joined us, she worked for a large corporate that in effect ‘put her out to pasture’ in her 50s to a back office role and stopped developing and promoting her within the organisation.

Of course, there is an increasingly growing opinion that age does not affect talent at all. Wisdom, experience, charisma – these are all characteristics that for the large part can only come from age and from developing yourself over a large period of time. It is these points that would indicate that age only ever affects talent in a positive manner and as a result should be harnessed and utilised.

If I looked at our recruitment for the banking sector pre-2008, I can’t think of a single candidate over 50 that was selected for any role. Talent was very much defined by age in the industry and the banks craved those coming up through the ranks with new ideas, innovation, pace and ambition. Fast forward six years and we now place as many people over 50 as under into the banks. Talent is generally defined as those people who possess good judgement, humility and experience of operating in booms and busts.

Now, sitting on the fence is never a comfortable place to be and you will be pleased to know, it’s a place I never occupy. In my personal opinion, talent is not automatically negatively impacted by age and yes, you can be talent and over 55! We should stop focusing on how mental and physical age affect talent and instead look at one’s state of mind.

A truly talented individual will never stop wanting to develop themselves personally, and more importantly they will never want to deliver anything but their best. I’d like to employ that sort of person every day please.

About the Author

Lyndsey Simpson

Lyndsey Simpson

Having grown HR firm The Curve Group into a multi-million pound business in six years, Simpson is the ideal fit for our people section. However, HR hasn’t always been her bag. She had many trials and tribulations dealing with recruitment in her previous role at Barclays. Simpson saw the light though and now works tirelessly in making sure that every client is left feeling ‘Curved’; think Tango’d but more professional.

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