When I first started my career over 20 years ago, it was as a recruitment consultant for an executive search firm. When we got a CV which indicated the candidate was over the age of 40, they would be filed into the ‘dinosaur’ folder. I was 21 at the time and this was my first ‘proper’ job. I didn’t have the courage to challenge those far senior to me. Looking back (as a 43 year old), not only do I see this for the blatant age discrimination it was, I also see this as being sloppy, short sighted and lacking in any kind of rationality.
In 2005 a meta analysis by Ng and Feldman was conducted to examine what factors best predicted career success. 140 peer reviewed and relevant studies examining predictors of salary, promotion and job satisfaction were included. It was found that age predicted very little. Yes, as we’d expect, older people tend to be paid more, but this is more a function of experience than age. In terms of promotion, the relationship with age shows a correlation of 0.02. You’d be right if you attributed this to being very weak indeed. With career satisfaction, you don’t have to be a genius to work out a correlation of 0.00 means there is no link whatsoever. In short, age is irrelevant. So what is relevant?
The biggest factor predicting whether or not people get promoted is (by some margin) the presence of an L&D department. The learning we get on the job is generally speaking, the best predictor for identifying those who will be promoted. Personal attributes like how proactive and extroverted we are also correlate strongly. There is also a negative and strong relationship with neuroticism: high levels predict you are less likely to be promoted. Turning to look at career satisfaction, the two strongest predictors are firstly, people who identify themselves as having a high ‘locus of control’ (in other words, they feel what happens to them is within their own control), and secondly having a good relationship with their line manager. Working in an organisation which has an L&D department again predicts levels of satisfaction. Our drive to learn one of the four fundamental human motivation drivers – an organisation that feeds this drive is more likely to have employees feeling higher levels of job satisfaction. Again, a negative and significant relationship is found with neuroticism: those who are more neurotic are less satisfied at work.
So here is the question: if age doesn’t predict our ability to impress and if the factors that do are largely down the organisation and the personality of the individual, then why do we look so narrowly at age when we recruit candidates for professional training schemes (such as graduate training programmes)? Looking through the Times top 100 graduate employers, there are an incredible range and wealth of opportunities to apply for jobs at the entry level, but these are targeted and marketed to students. I haven’t gone through all 100 in detail, but anecdotal evidence and conversations with those at Changeboard, CIPD, Business in the Community, The Centre for Ageing Better, the BPS and the ABP show not one person can identify any organisation which hires career changers programmatically. The popularity of returnships and the subsequent PR frenzy surrounding them, shows an appetite for women who want to return to careers in banking. Where however are the programmes for those who want to change career altogether?
As Lynda Gratton points out in the book, ‘The 100 year life’, the career for life has gone, and the reality for most people will be multiple career changes. The prospects provided by the frustrated accountant, the disengaged advertising account manager, the disillusioned teachers, the parents who took career breaks and want a new challenge are vast and plentiful. I myself know two women who in their 40’s went back to study medicine. Yes, they’ll graduate at close to 50, but as people who’ve had children, seen parents die and who have sacrificed years of savings to do this, I challenge anyone reading this to question their ability or skill as a doctor when they do eventually graduate? It isn’t competence which predicts doctors that get sued (in the US) – it is their ability to build relationships with their patients (their bedside manner). This is a skill which translates across all professions and is not the exclusive domain of those in their early 20’s. My friend Paul Smith who is launching his new app ‘Wise Amigo’ has along with several other occupational psychologists reviewed hundreds of competency models. The aim of the app is to identify skills which translate across all jobs and all contexts. They’ve come up with 32 discreet and separate competencies – a selection of which are relevant for any job at any time. The point being skills translate. You don’t go from one job to another and suddenly find ‘listening skills’ has become irrelevant!
I hear lamentations that graduates leaving university aren’t work ready, but my challenge to them is ‘are you really surprised’? Graduates have been prepared to pass ‘A’ Levels in Chemistry, or write essays on the pros and cons of various theories of job analysis. This isn’t a critique of our education system, it is simply the fact that if we want new learners be work ready, why aren’t we targeting the career changer? I would love to see organisations that recruit programmatically, being bolder and more exciting with their existing programmes and targeting the opportunities the prospective career changer can provide.
Lucy Standing is the Founder of ViewVo, a Chartered Business Psychologist, Social Entrepreneur and Vice Chair of the Association for Business Psychology.
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