Saturday, June 04, 2005

Age Discrimination

A few years ago, I was hiring for a technical position and spent several days phone-screening candidates for the job. Then, one day, I got a guy on the phone who really impressed me. I interviewed him over the phone for an hour and realized this guy was one of the most amazingly technical people I'd ever met. So, I arranged to meet him over dinner for a second interview with me and my former boss. When I had been talking to him on the phone, I'd developed a mental picture of him - I imagined him as tall, slim, about 32 years old, and with glasses, and a moustache. Well, I was right on three out of the five: he had no moustache... and he was 76!

I remember sitting there over dinner thinking to myself how incredible that was. Here I was talking to someone who knew computer technology as well as anyone I'd met, and yet he was the same age as my grandfather. Here was a man who would have been in his late thirties at the time the first ever commercial mainframe computer (the UNIVAC 1) was produced; and who probably never had his hands on a computer until he was in his late forties or early fifties. And yet, he was able to function, and indeed excel in the technology industry. And, of course, we had a very pleasant dinner with the man, and hired him at the end of it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience. The man I interviewed for a technical job wasn't 76, but he certainly had a full head of grey hair - and, he was the best candidate of the lot I interviewed. He will be starting work for me next week.

Unfortunately, there are many managers out there who do not think the same way I do. They hold onto the old mentality that it is better to hire someone who is young and who they can "mold", and they tell themselves that old dogs cannot learn new tricks. But, they fail to realize that most workers today (young or old) do not stay at a job for longer than a few years, and by holding onto this outdated mentality, they are depriving themselves of a large segment of potentially qualified workers. From my experience, older workers may be more set in their ways, but they also bring with them a lot of maturity and are often better able to maintain their composure in stressful situations. A major technical problem that would make a younger technician panic would likely be handled calmly by an older technician.

Decades ago, people set a norm that people retire at 65 years old. Pension plans kick in when you turn 65, Social Security here in the United States kicks in at 65 (soon to be 67), and in some countries (Canada, unfortunately, being one of them) employers often force workers to retire at 65. What some people fail to realize is that when this age was chosen, people were only expected to live to about 65 years old - anything above this was living on borrowed time. However today, with modern medicine, longevity expectations are going up, and I expect by the time I reach that age, the average life expectancy here will be over 100. Ask yourself, does retiring at 65 and being in a retired state for 35 years really make sense in this context? I think not.

Another thing people often don't realize is that we humans thrive on stress. Seniors who engage in mildly stressful activities (working, going back to college, etc.) keep their brains young, and avert the mental decline that tends to affect those who allow themselves to be put out to pasture.

I am still relatively young myself, but I have personally seen enough examples to realize that I will have lots of time to be retired after I am dead. And, until that time, I have no intention of putting myself out to pasture, and would hate anyone to make that decision for me by forcing me into "mandatory retirement" or by refusing to hire me because of my age. I only hope more managers develop my outlook on this issue before I have to worry about it.