Ageism, Diversity, Keeping Active, Mature knowledge, Stereotyping

Look beyond ‘disability’ of over 50s and reap a lifetime’s expertise

By Ed Bernacki, a specialist in innovation and creativity.  This article appeared in The Australian, 

During my career I gained ­international expertise, an MBA, studied for a PhD, published 250 articles, wrote several books, worked with many people on ­projects and invented a new idea journal that sold 50,000 copies.

Yet it appears I developed a ­disability. Despite this background, it seems impossible to be taken seriously for a job. While it is clearly incapacitating, the only obvious symptom of this disability is being over 50. And I know others with this disability.

We are shunned for our disability, perhaps like leprosy. Those who are younger, particularly recruiters, stay away. Resumes are shunted into the “too hard” file.

Is it like a physical or mental disability? Obviously not. Yet so little value is placed on the expertise of older people that logic ­dictates it must be a disability.

I read about a public sector scheme: “Our participation in the RecruitAbility scheme means we will progress an applicant with disability to a ­further stage in the recruitment process, where they opt into the scheme and meet the minimum requirements for the position.” If being 50 or over was accepted as a disability, perhaps we could design better ways for older people to improve the nation’s productivity.

Note the diversity of older people. Some had blue-collar jobs for 30 years, others are gold-collar workers with education, advanced qualifications and much expertise.

Older people will struggle when working with younger ­people at times. They may be challenged by the gossipy nature of ­social media. They may not care about cute cat videos.

An issue arose when a group of 30-year-olds flexed their expertise in my field at an event. I thought they showed little depth while acting like experts. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less you know about something, the more you think you know; the more you know about something, the less you think you know.

Do not assume older people need retraining. Perhaps give younger employees new skills to work with people who are older, more educated and have expertise beyond their own. To say older people do not understand technology is nonsensical. We may need to learn the latest application that adds to the software learned across 30 years. Having grown up with analog and digital tools, we offer a type of bilingualism. Solutions can be a hybrid of analog and digital. If I show up at a meeting with a notebook, it means the notebook is the best technology for making notes and sketching ideas created during the meeting.

Interviews also must be longer as there is more to explore. Honour their experience and expertise. Ask: “What other experiences do you bring to this organisation?”

Stop asking frivolous questions such as “name one situation in which …” as they could likely name 20. Look for the results they achieved. Lessons learned 20 years ago are just as relevant as those learned a year ago.

Here’s an idea. Challenge someone with this debilitating handicap. Tell them to prepare a 10-minute presentation for the interview process to address: “Based on your experiences, what are three ways you could make this organisation more successful?”

Stand back. Listen. You may see beyond this disability and see the passion, expertise and enthusiasm they bring to a role.

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