BACKUP Aged to Perfection

I never had any particular truck for the homilies of former Chrysler chief executive Lee Iacocca but – and my view is no doubt influenced by my allocated seat in the stalls of the theatre of time – he reportedly once said: “…it takes you until about 50 to know what the hell is going on in the world”. The reason for mentioning this is simply that I wanted to write about an organisational issue that is, I think, becoming increasingly important: What to do with our growing pool of aged executives.
Conventional wisdom suggests that age brings just that – wisdom, or at least experience. It is, however, sometimes hard to tell where wisdom ends and breakdown begins as we in the maturing classes struggle to recall the name of someone we met just 15 minutes ago. Put it down to knowledge overload. But we are faced with the prospect of swelling ranks in the grey brigade as 60 flicks past for the army of baby boomers who will start to de-mob from executive ranks from next year.
Do age and experience really have anything to offer? The energy, enthusiasm and ambition of youth is unquestionably compelling cocktail in the hands of most recruiters. Find yourself job hunting after the age of 50, some say 45, and even executives with an impressive track record of managerial success are more likely to tick off morning of disinterested phone calls than schedule of searching interviews. After six months of unrequited recruitment they turn to consulting, coaching or selling real estate.
Research suggests that fewer than one third of employers actively recruit older workers and particularly older executives. The higher up the management tree you perch, the further you fall. And even fewer organisations actively attempt to retain older individuals, though I’m not sure this would hold true in today’s skills-starved economy. Employers just now are probably keeping firm grip on almost anyone who manages to stagger into the office. How long will this last?
This magazine’s key concern is, of course, with the prospects of those at the management and leadership end of the work spectrum and with considering what they have to offer. There is, if current trends and practices continue, the prospect of what Harvard Business Review earlier this year called “the potentially debilitating mass retirement” of older executives that will “starve enterprise of key talent in the next 10 to 15 years”. To avoid that happening here, as in the US and other economies, attitudes toward both retirement and recruitment must change.
The conflict between the relative value to organisations of age versus enthusiasm, performance versus puff, innovation versus intuition is not easily resolved, particularly in world of competitive markets and voracious shareholder demands. It is even more acute in small economies like New Zealand where enterprise is kept relatively trim and there is little room to inject additional layers of managerial fat including, in future, those sporting the classic middle age spread. Experienced executives are not just getting older, they are living longer too. That, on the face of it, poses something of double whammy. The prospect of being out of work for as long as you were in it is not particularly appealing, at least for those who either can’t afford to retire to Australia’s Sunshine Coast or worry about being bored to death.
Retirement, as we now understand it, is relatively new phenomenon. Historically we worked till we dropped. It was reforming industrial legislation, particularly around the time of the 1930s depression, that encouraged governments, unions and employers to institutionalise retirement programmes and, set at age 65, it was race for most of us to collect funds from the pension before farewell from the pulpit. All that has changed and the way we deal with the issue must change along with it.
Older executives have much to offer, particularly when it comes to mentoring and thinking about solutions to some of the complex leadership and other problems that confront organisations, the economy and society today. HBR, for example, suggested retirees might act as “leaders on demand”, stepping in at moment’s notice to fill gaps and help bring the next generation of leaders up to speed. Changed employment policies would, of course, need changed tax and other employment regulations as well but, is that beyond imagination?
People don’t, as Iacocca realised, lose lifetime’s experience, talent and knowledge when they turn 50, 60, or even 70 years old. How to turn that resource to account is challenge for both enterprise, policymakers and society in general. The country would be richer if we found enthusiastic, new and innovative answers to what will become yet another considerable leadership issue.

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