Career Resources

Still Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30?

Quips about aging abound. For baby boomers, the clever comments may have begun in the 1960s with the attitude-laden command, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” At the end of the millennium, however, their comments about age have a different tone—“You’re not getting older, you’re getting better,” and “Getting older isn’t great, but it beats the alternative.” Both comments reveal a good-natured acceptance of the inevitable. Increasingly though, when discussion combines the topics of aging and career management, tones of good-natured acceptance are absent.

Lately, especially since the effects of the Balanced Budget Act have taken hold, a number of senior executives in touch with ACHE’s Career Resource Center have sounded discouraged about their employment situation. Those expressing concern include securely employed leaders as well as executives in transition.

Despondence among employed executives often arises because they face increased demands and stress in their jobs while their work provides less satisfaction. These individuals are not ready to call it quits—they are ready to speculate whether there are better situations elsewhere where they could apply their transferable skills. The executives in transition have a different basis for pessimism. They are concerned whether (or how much) their age will penalize them in competing for a new position. There are no easy responses to these concerns; however, this posting will provide relevant information to give senior career managers a more accurate picture of the challenges of changing jobs and careers.

First, is age bias really an issue? The answer that will probably get the most agreement is that it has been perceived as a barrier. That perception was so broadly shared that in 1992, it prompted ACHE to develop a Public Policy Statement concerning “Age Discrimination and the Healthcare Executive.” The ACHE policy position is to encourage healthcare executives and their organizations to employ individuals without regard to their age. So strongly is this position held that ACHE states that “even covert discrimination against the older healthcare executives” is incompatible with ACHE’s Code of Ethics.

Judging by recent career-focused columns in newspapers, newsletters, and magazines, age bias is still an issue. A spring 1999 column on older executives by Hal Lancaster in the Wall Street Journal provoked enough comments from readers to warrant another column devoted to their divided opinions. Readers disagreed on the value of looking for permanent positions versus consulting; on going back to school for another degree; and on staying in one’s lifetime field or switching to another area. Despite their differing opinions, they all agreed that there is a challenge facing the older employee. In another column in the Chicago Sun-Times, Bob Weinstein laid out how much of a factor age and salary level is in a job search. He cited the rule of thumb that it will require four weeks for every $10,000 of compensation to land a new job. He also cited a poll of 400 executives that reveals those over 40 should count on a job change to require nine months to a year. But that wasn’t the last word on the topic. Less than a month later, different data appeared in the same newspaper but under the byline of James Challenger.

Challenger saw American workers entering the era of age neutrality. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, he noted that by 2005 one in three people over 55 will be working and 39 percent of the labor pool will be 45 or older. (During the next eight years the number of workers age 25 to 34 is expected to drop nine percent.) He also acknowledged that obtaining higher salaries have been a challenge for older workers but noted changes that are leveling the playing field such as salary based on performance and defined contribution pension plans funded by employees. Finally, he noted that the trend toward smaller enterprises favors older individuals because such firms cannot afford to make costly mistakes. The older executive’s experience becomes even more of an added value as does his or her tendency to stay with a firm rather than job hop.

Do these observations have validity? Data from the Challenger Job Market Index, a quarterly survey of 3,000 job seekers, indicates that in the first six months of 1999, the median job search time for job seekers over age 50 was just slightly longer than that for all job seekers: 3.8 months versus 3.5 months. Admittedly, these data encompass more than senior executives in healthcare and cover candidates supported by outplacement. Nevertheless they are encouraging.

What can make a difference for older executives making a transition? Refer again to ACHE’s Public Policy Statement on age discrimination. It contains not just admonitions for employers, but sage counsel for executive career management. Briefly, the statement recommends that 1) senior executives should be flexible in seeking new positions. They should be open to considering different organizational settings, geographic areas, and levels of responsibility and compensation; and 2) executives must assume responsibility for continuously maintaining and improving their skills so they can continue to contribute value in environments that continually change.

Finally, executives need to take action to counter the prevailing myths. They must stay fit physically and mentally; they should expand their horizons of interest, knowledge, and experience; and, they must remain positive in their outlook so they can effectively sell others on the positive difference they can make.