I’ve written before about the creeping age-related discrimination that is appearing in the job market. At 44 years old myself, it is quite sobering to know that for many jobs I’m already considered too old or borderline. I work about 70-80 hours a week, I’m highly motivated and experienced, and feel that I could make a big difference to any company that hired me (no, I’m not looking for a job…). So, why do many – foreign companies in particular – issue guidelines to recruiters saying “no one over 40 years old”.

The usual reason given by HR managers is a financial one. Younger people are generally cheaper and more willing/easier to train. Even in foreign companies, the habit of pay based on seniority is hard to break, and HR staff would rather not deal with the issue – especially while there are so many younger people out on the job market anyway. But the fact is that this simple cut-off of job applicants may actually be damaging to hirers, in that they are missing some amazing talent – more on this in a minute.

The second main reason given by HR managers is that younger people are generally more flexible and can learn new skills quicker. Yes, that’s fair enough. But one thing I see in my own staff is that a person with interpersonal skills can usually do a better job regardless of their age. Personally, I’d rather have someone with an outgoing personality than a group of faceless, sponge-like younger employees. The decision should be made on the basis of ability and other factors – not age.

The third main reason given is health. Again, this claim has some basis – many of us don’t look after our bodies, and we do tend to lose our ability to handle heavy workloads and pressure as we age. However, a physical check before employment begins would help an employer’s misgivings. Further, youth is no guarantee of health. A friend of mine keeled over with a heart attack just a couple of months back, and he was only 39.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of talented Japanese managers in their late 40s and early 50s who are having problems due to their age. One guy is a 46-year-old software/data center project manager. He is fluently bilingual and has an excellent track record with major IT companies. However, he made the mistake of getting into a tech start-up 3 years ago, and it has since gone bust. If he were under 38, he would be getting job offers left, right, and center. But at his current age, even if he accepts the lower salaries being offered similar people in their 30’s, he is being knocked back. It’s a tough world.

Companies that are struggling to improve their bottom lines owe it to themselves to put more effort into reviewing all incoming candidates, not just the ones that are easy to select. This is an attitude change that needs to be made at the top and communicated back to the HR departments. Further, and surprisingly, age-related discrimination is not illegal in Japan. Given what’s happening with the birth rate and the government’s depleted social insurance funds, maybe it should be…

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