Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is It Age-ism?

A client sent me an article about age-ism in IT, when the 30-year-old hotshot becomes the 50-year-old has-been in the lightning world of innovation.  What struck me was how this keeps getting presented as a new problem.

When I was 30 and at Monsanto (and a hot shot, if you'd asked me), we in Human Resources worried about the plight of the over-50s. . . who we viewed as solid performers but not promotable, and who were at the top of the salary range.  What could we do to take care of them?  Ten years ago, after Y2K, I was doing career continuation workshops for older IT workers who'd gotten bounced from their companies after that crisis had passed.

Bottom line:  This is a universal and persistent  and age-old problem of an employee getting older and bumping against a system's value boundaries. Before you're 50,  you're a new product in the market; you have promise; you're cheap to hire.  After you're 50, your employer knows you in depth, good and bad, you're an expensive commodity and you might have settled into a knowledge rut And who wants to work 70-hour-weeks once you have a real life?  You have institutional knowledge, and while you're right about its importance, the company doesn't value it.

When I was cradled by a company that promised us everything and took care of everything, and a lot of years separated me from 50, I expected the company to DO something about those 50-year-olds.  Today the corporate landscape has dramatically changed.  Companies abdicated that care-taking mentality decades ago.  It's "every man for himself," although - curiously - people are still surprised by the way the company treats them after age 50, as if that hire-and-develop-youth practice didn't apply to them.  It comes from being terminally unique; that is, we believe the rules apply to others, not to us. 

You call it age-ism.  Your employer calls it being "mean and lean," saving money by "getting some new blood around here."  Translation:  Younger, cheaper, faster, fresher.  It's why unions were born, frankly, and why seniority is so treasured there, because companies have ALWAYS left older workers in the dust, given the opportunity.  Seniority helped older workers keep their jobs.

Absent the protection of unions, what are you gonna do? 

(1) If you're in IT and over 50, you'd better be in a classroom seat or at a webinar on a regular basis.  If you're in any other profession, you still need skills building.  (I can't tell you how many clients firmly inform me they are NOT going back to school. . .at a time of their career when knowledge freshening is a MUST). 

(2) You'd better be preparing to change jobs or careers because that's when companies move against employees, after age 50.  If that doesn't happen, hoorah.  You've probably increased your value to the company by what you've learned.  The shame of this change is that the 50s is actually the greatest decade, if you're in a job you like.  You're most creative and productive and at peace with yourself, and having fun. 

(3) Don't rest on your laurels; don't coast.  Few companies value loyalty or longevity.  They're running too fast to give you a break. 

Age-ism it may well be.  Thirty years from now the same thing will still be going on.  My point is that making that charge, becoming bitter and resentful doesn't help you a whit.  Be more interested in how to STAY interesting to the marketplace.  If you don't, you'll pay a high price - literally - for your inaction.

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