The Paradox of Being an Older Employee

Despite glowing job reviews, hiring managers still favor younger applicants, a new report shows.

The employee’s job recommendations were impeccable: glowing write-ups from former managers, and a handwritten note from a well-known CEO. And yet he applied for job after job and did not receive interview offers. Was it because he was 61 years old? 

new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveals that the older workers of today find themselves in a frustrating paradox. Employers may rave about their performance, but shun hiring them. Indeed, the report shows that employers overwhelmingly favor applicants ages 30-44, and are as likely to offer a job interview to someone with 5 years of experience as they are to a similar candidate with 25 years of experience.

Legally, such leanings can run afoul of hiring laws, of course. But experts say it’s potentially risky behavior for other reasons too. “The employer is taking a bet on less of a track record,” says human resources expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. Experienced candidates are likely to be more stable and reliable, he says, as well as committed to holding a role for a few years.

The report found that employment peaks at age 45, and then steeply drops after age 50 for men and particularly women. Once out of the workforce, older employees struggle to regain a foothold, partly because employers have different expectations of them: only 27% of hirers think that candidates over age 45 have a personality that fits with the industry and team dynamics, compared to 54% for candidates ages 30-44. The data, based on a survey of over 7,500 employees and managers, also showed that nearly a quarter of employers believe midcareer job applicants are less adaptable than their younger counterparts to technology, skills, and tools. 

Porter says that companies often lean toward less experienced talent because they see more long-term potential. But the median employee tenure at companies is just over four years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And “potential” assumes that the older candidate has already reached their ceiling, which experts say is often not the case with women, many of whom sideline their careers to raise families and take up jobs a decade or two later than their peers. 

Once employees start the job, employers overwhelmingly prefer those with experience, with 89% finding later-career employees’ job performance to be as good as or better than entry- and intermediate-level employees’, according to the same report. “And they’re less likely to leave for another opportunity, because there are probably fewer opportunities coming their way,” says Porter.

To be sure, most younger employees do have stronger tech skills than their older counterparts. “With newer technologies, the expectation is that the talent is going to be younger,” says Deepali Vyas, global head of the FinTech, Crypto and Payments practice at Korn Ferry. But she adds that new companies frequently staff up with mostly younger employees, then reach a growth ceiling because those employees do not have skills—like stakeholder management or developing institutional processes—which are pivotal to growing a company. Experienced employees bring a level of maturity, emotional intelligence, and understanding of the workplace, says Vyas. “There’s something to be said for those gray hairs,” says Vyas. “They bring calm to the situation.”

Experts suggest firms and HR departments need to refocus their efforts on identifying ideal employees. “Do an analysis of what success looks like in the role,” says Maria Amato, associate client partner at Korn Ferry, who endorses a process called “success profiling.” And then make sure that candidates with more experience who fit the profile are not punished or overlooked. 


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