THE BLOG

Employers Should Focus on Mental, Not Physical Age

09/23/2014 02:56 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:01 EDT
Image by Catherine MacBride via Getty Images

Western culture has long been youth obsessed. From a youth-obsessed Hollywood feeding the pop culture machine through annual cycles of new actors, to the annual crop of wannabe investment bankers and consultants who are force fed through the "meat grinder", human civilization has always valued youth.

It is thus no surprise that youth is highly valued. Through time, youth has been a critical survivability trait for any species, whether it was running from predators or producing offspring. However, technology has increasingly changed the equation.

Technology has nearly eliminated the natural differences between individuals when it comes to job-related physical traits. No longer is pure physical strength a job requirement, as robotic machines have equalized the necessary physical requirements. Most employers have now acknowledged that physical differences are a non-issue, but many employers are still trapped by ancient preconceptions concerning age.

When employment required significantly more physical labor than what is required in the 21st-century, it made practical sense for employers to retire their aging employees since younger employees were physically more productive and more cost effective. However, a couple of key factors are now challenging the ancient preconceptions concerning the economic usefulness of older employees:

(1) A Failing Retirement System: The concept of a carefree retirement is a relatively new concept. Due to the lack of a social security system that was only put in place in the past century, most people had to work their entire lives. However, while several generations have benefited from the social security system, it is no longer viable. As a result of a decreasing number of younger employees funding the system, the social security system is increasingly unsustainable.

(2) Increasing Longevity: Due to advances in medical science, humans are living longer in a healthier state. The old preconception of an aged individual spending their days in senility is a rarity and is contrasted by today's active Baby Boomers.

If, from both an economic and a health perspective, older individuals are still a viable workforce option, why is there so much resistance to leveraging these employees? We as individuals continue to have a false preconception that "aged" means an inability to adapt and grow, traits which are increasingly critical in today's globalized economy.

But is this true? In reality, it is another stereotype that individuals have clung to as short hand to identify individuals who may slow down innovation and advancement. Innovators should not be fearing aged individuals but rather those with "old" mindsets.

Every industry and societal layer has them. Young individuals who espouse viewpoints that stereotypically should be coming from someone older. Everyone has encountered these individuals somewhere, whether in political parties or multinational corporations. While some are educated into these behaviours, others have a natural predisposition. This is why cultural norms and ideologies are so difficult to dislodge. There are always younger individuals to replenish the pipeline. This why age stereotypes are a constant battle in every generation.

How does this all relate to employee hiring? In today's ultracompetitive technology-based economy where employers are desperate for employees in certain fields, needlessly eliminating a sizeable portion of the population based merely on age is incredibly misguided.

The technology sector has lead the way in terms of human resource innovation by placing significant emphasis on positive workplace culture. This emphasis on workplace culture is not merely done as a non-financial employee incentive but it also provides financial incentives to the corporations. By creating a positive workplace culture, employers encourage their employees to be more productive, not only in terms of individual productivity, but also in terms of overall creativity and innovation.

If an employee-centric culture is the new wave of working, how does this relate to age? For all the breakdown of stereotypes that this new employee-centric culture has brought, there are some stereotypes such as ageism which are still prevalent.

As employers and employees increasingly emphasize cultural fit as a mutually critical selling point, employers and employees still use age as an unfair and biased filter for cultural fit. From a purely quantitative perspective, employers and human resource individuals can hardly be blamed for using this unfair filter. Considering the massive number of resumes that companies receive for positions and the need to find the right candidate with the right skills and cultural fit, it is no wonder physical characteristics such as age will be used as a filter to quickly sort through the resume flood in attempt to focus on high value candidates.

While this filter may work for a significant portion of candidates, it is damaging the ability of companies to further grow and prosper by unnecessarily eliminating candidates solely on physical age rather than mental age. There are many older individuals who are taking the same risks and challenges that are so admired in today's twenty something entrepreneurs.

If physical age shouldn't be utilized as a filter, then what should companies be looking for when assessing a candidate's cultural fit? Companies should be looking at whether or not individuals have the right mental characteristics that match the company's culture. Utilizing today's hot technology startups, these mental characteristics could include:

(1) Flexibility in ambiguous situations

(2) Adaptability in unknown and challenging environments

(3) Overall mental agility

While testing for these mental characteristics is much more challenging and time consuming than utilizing other characteristics for company cultural fit, the benefits for companies far outweigh the drawbacks. Not only will they be able to expand their top tier candidate pool without sacrificing quality, but the diversity and experience that these new potential candidates will bring will enable companies to grow faster and on a strong, diversified foundation.