I had a rather sad lunch with a ex-employee and now good friend of mine. She called to talk to me about the fact that she has struggled to find work for over two years. She is highly intelligent, educated, talented and on the right side of the affirmative action spectrum. However, she does not even get to first interview stage. You see, she carries a terrible burden – she has passed her sell-by date, having just turned 50.
Unfortunately, she is not the only person I know in a similar predicament. Many of my colleagues have – for whatever reason – found themselves back in the job market after the age of 40. Most can recount experiences that left them despondant about the possibility of ever being employed again. A friend of mine called a recritment agency (quite well known) to apply for an advertised position. He was told that the consultants would be with him shortly. The well trained receptionist then asked him for a few biographical details. When she got to “date of birth”, he naively answered that he was born in 1960 (or thereabouts) – making him just over 50. The young lady only hesitated slightly before suddenly remembering that the consultant was out and that all the other were busy. She promised that someone would call back shortly. Well – do you think that ever happened? I know many others who were told in less subtle ways that they were too old.
What saddens me is that these are people I know who have a great deal to offer the corporate word. They are educated, experienced and possess a depth of knowledge and skill that they have built up over 20 – 25 years in the business world. We seem so concerned about developing skills (and rightly so) that we ignore the wealth of skill and ability that could be utilised to grow and nurture the next generation.
Other countries – the US for example – have stricter rules regarding ageism. Perhaps it is time we addressed the issue more aggressively in South Africa. After all, people over 40 or 50 are hardly brain dead and suddenly lazy or incompetent. Age is a number – not a definiton of energy or ability.