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Bias against the Old in Business World

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Business World's Bias Against the Old

Commentary. Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Matthew Lynn

London, Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Nobody likes being told they are past it, especially in a world that prizes youth above all other virtues. From life's other setbacks you can always bounce back. There is no bouncing back from old age.

That explains the interest in Sharon Haugh, who was fired in May from her job in the North American unit of British pension manager Schroders Plc. Despite 20 years experience at the company, she alleges that at 56 her employer thought she was too old.

Haugh filed suit in Manhattan last week alleging among other things that the fund manager planned pay rises for executives in their thirties, but not for those in their forties or fifties.

The reason? A member of Schroder's personnel department said the company should raise the pay of younger employees because workers in their 40s and 50s were ``not as marketable and less likely to leave,'' her lawsuit claims.

Schroder rejects any suggestion it discriminated against Haugh. It says her claim ``will be vigorously contested.''

The case has touched a nerve. Aging professionals in Europe and the U.S. are worried that they are being pushed aside in favor of the young.

The issue is most acute in the financial markets, but it is by no means confined to the City or Wall Street. Throughout the world, business has succumbed to a cult of youth.

Energy and Dynamism

Employers think that by hiring young people they are capturing energy and dynamism. What they are actually doing is producing workforces that are either stressed beyond endurance (the thirty-something's) or demoralized and marginalized (the fifty-something's).

In the last decade, the plotline of most working lives has been re-written -- almost certainly for the worse.

The discarded model, familiar to our parents, was for people to have careers lasting roughly four decades. People started in their early twenties and hacked their way up the corporate ladder.

By their mid-fifties, they made it to a senior position. They held that for a few years, they were given a gold watch and toddled off to the golf course and the grave.

It was a life that became the butt of a thousand satires. It was also one that suited most people pretty well. It gave shape and purpose to their lives.

People had children in their twenties, when their careers were in second gear, which meant they had time and energy to handle the babies.

Careers in Top Gear

By the time their careers reached third and forth gear, their children were older, and less demanding, and they could devote themselves to their work. When they retired, their careers were over, and most people only lived for five years after they left the office.

That model is broken. In its place, professionals are expected to do everything in their thirties. Most have children in their early to mid-thirties, slightly later than their parents.

Most companies expect people to be hitting the home straight in their careers in their mid-to-late-thirties. If you haven't made it to the board by the time you're 40, the chances are you aren't going to.

What does that create? Lives that look like car crashes.

People pile up the most stressful events of their lives -- starting a family, making something of their career -- in the space of a few short years. Not surprisingly, many find it hard to cope.

Hard Work

They then have a few decades to reflect on what hard work it all was. By the time they hit their fifties, they are expected to have enough money to retire in luxury, or else drift through the twilight of a working life.

Sometimes the fifty-something's move on from their jobs into consulting or part-time positions. Those that remain are often demoralized, because people, naturally, like to feel they are going somewhere.

This is madness.

A combination of longer lives, rising health-care costs, and collapsing stock markets mean that people need longer careers, not shorter. In Britain, the National Association of Pension Funds has just said the retirement age should be raised to 70.

The cult of youth has produced questionable leadership -- the myth that younger chief executives are better has been exploded along with the bubble.

Most importantly, it doesn't fit the way people live.

How will it stop? Companies need to reflect more on how they are structured, and ask whether they are letting their people lead satisfying lives. A few more writs for age discrimination would be a good start.

©2002 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Terms of Service, Privacy Policy and Trademarks.

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