Let's play some word association.
"Hiring" == Qualified?
"Recruitment" == HR?
"Diversity" == Gender? Or maybe Race?
Now picture this. A former news editor at one of the country's top mainstream newspapers gets laid off in 2008. At every interview since, she's been given the same apologetic look and more or less the same answer: "I'm sorry, you are too over-qualified for us." Or "We won't be able to match your salary, you have too much experience." Of course, she is yet to be called "too old" for the job, but she says she gets the message. After over a year of active searching, she gave up last fall and began attending paralegal classes. I discussed her innovative efforts at employment on CNBC's Executive Blogs late last year.
And while she may have been working in a dying industry, her case is far from unique to the newspaper business. Boomers are experiencing similar situations across industries, regardless of the level of their skills or tech savvy. As more join the ranks of senior job seekers (Read: Wells Fargo's SVP, Global Remittance Group Head Daniel Ayala), they are increasingly coming up against an age barrier preventing them from returning to the workforce. With depleted 401(k)s and a conservative job market, boomers are facing new levels of resistance from a corporate America keen to avoid the bigger paycheck experience demands and the perceived stereotype of a slower learning curve among older workers. Add to this the awkwardness of interviewing with younger executives, who present a generationally different manner of talk, authority and interpersonal skills, and you have a markedly tense situation.
Central to all this is the oft-ignored issue of age diversity. Ask yourself how many times it shows up in HR discussion, at business seminars, or even in internal committee talks on enhancing your company's diversity and leadership initiatives. Chances are it's not often, right? And that's reflected in the literature: preview any leading diversity survey (Vault, DiversityInc., WorkingMother, etc.) and age-related questions are hard to come by. Of course, one argument is that this is a relatively new trend: the recession greatly increased the instances of both boomer-age layoffs while simultaneously diminishing their financial stability, creating a unique set of conditions that didn't exist when most of the surveys I note were formulated.
The case for having a diverse workforce doesn’t need any elaboration—whether it be gender, sexuality, ethnicity or age. Besides their experience, young leaders can benefit immensely from mentorship opportunities—in some industries, it is a given that senior mentors pave the way for young associates—as was evident from the findings of Vault's Annual Leadership Survey, where it was interesting to find that most leadership initiatives that are in place at companies were started and continue to be led by baby boomers. Now while this gives credence to their experience as well as their willingness to mentor younger executives, it also subtly ensures a balance between new thought and practiced familiarity.
The importance of this was illustrated in a recent New York Times article examining the ramifications of a 2002 decision by the government of Norway that required at least 40 percent of all company board members to be female. Of course, the bill was supported passionately by women executives, but the lack of direction and a mandate to fulfill the law led to a dramatic reduction in the age of the average board member in a very short amount of time.
This sudden change in board demographics led to product lines and business strategy becoming increasingly focused on new trends and not using historical data and experience as a decoder in the final decision making process. And that in turn led to pronounced performance declines, as demonstrated in a study conducted by the University of Michigan cited in the article. While business analysis and strategy can always benefit from fresh ideas and new thought leaders, decades of experience holds its own weight in the board room and provides us with the balancing act that most companies need to perfect their models.
It is time corporate America and its diversity strategists, leaders and advocates recognize this as a fallacy and not only allow boomers to re-enter the workforce on their own terms, but also encourage them to inculcate a habit of mentoring and leading by example. (For additional insight, read: Can Gen-X Career Disorientation Work for you as a jobseeker?) The value of experienced judgment cannot be undermined and with the package of resilience, a willingness to adapt and tested knowledge, they may just be worth the higher salary tag.
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