Recently, two sports stories caught my eye by showcasing opposite poles of an issue many financial services professionals grapple with every day: the perceived relationship between job performance and age.
One story involves allegations that some of China's star female gymnasts overstated their ages to skirt a long-standing Olympic ban on athletes younger than 16. Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Rebecca Dube made that the jumping-off point for an article about people who misstate their age to steer clear of colleagues' stereotyped attitudes. However, roughly half of her story dealt with individuals who could be perceived as too young for their job - hardly a plausible scenario for most financial professionals.
The article also suffered from a common flaw: touting the urban legend that impending retirements somehow make employers less hostile to older candidates. "Suddenly, having a few grey hairs isn't such a bad thing," Dube cheerily wrote.
Similar assertions occasionally show up in stories on eFinancialCareers News. Among sources we regularly quote, corporate HR departments and some external recruiters have obvious self-interested reasons to portray a near-empty glass as 70 percent full. But even career counselors, whose sole client is the candidate, sometimes paint too sunny a picture on this topic - especially if they have no Wall Street background, and so may not be fully aware of the finance industry's obsession with 20-somethings.
I've heard a more sophisticated variant uttered at career fairs when someone inquires about age discrimination: "If you can make money for an employer, they don't care how old you are. All a hiring manager really wants to know is, 'Can this candidate make me money?'"
Many Don't Even Bother to Deny Their Bias
These eminently rational viewpoints align with the belief in market efficiency that underlies some sectors of our profession. Unfortunately, they don't align with observable reality.
"I have had 4 companies tell me they were looking for someone younger," one user in his 50s wrote in response to a story on our sister site, JobsintheMoney. "Many of the interviewers do a double take when they expected someone 35 and not 50. Companies are no longer afraid to discriminate because the hand-picked federal attorneys are unwilling to prosecute."
"It was so blatantly obvious in several job interviews that I asked directly if my age was an issue," another user wrote. "The interviewers, unwisely, confirmed that it was, whereby I pointed out that such was illegal. I appreciated their honesty and did not pursue the legal aspect as I was more interested in spending my time getting a job."
Too Old to Pitch Deals?
The second sports story came from a major league baseball game on Aug. 15, in which the opposing pitchers were 45-year-old Jamie Moyer and 42-year-old Greg Maddux. Both performed at a high level, as Moyer's Philadelphia Phillies beat Maddux's San Diego Padres by a score of 1-0.
Thinking about those two guys, who while young enough to duel on the mound would be considered too old to pitch deals to banking clients, I was reminded of an e-mail I'd sent to a headhunter some time ago. "If an employer gets the idea I'd be any less physically energetic or any less emotionally committed to the task than a 30-year-old (excepting certain very narrow job categories, such as firefighter, dancer, astronaut, ski instructor, or professional athlete), that employer would be shooting himself or herself in the foot," I wrote.
I guess I could have left "professional athlete" off the list.
Here's Our Playbook
What's a candidate to do in an industry so firmly resolved to shoot itself? First, home in on those situations where an employer appears at least partially motivated by whether a candidate can make money, rather than basing everything on a checklist. Then, go tastefully all-out to defy age-based stereotypes that hiring managers and prospective teammates may hold.
Maintain a trim body and an up-to-date appearance in everything you wear, from hairstyle and eyeglasses (if any) down to your shoes. Keep your skills at the cutting edge - especially anything related to technology. (That includes the communication device you bring to an interview, even though you'll turn it off before walking in.) Show the utmost respect toward a youthful interviewer. Talk up your energy level, and seize every possible chance to trumpet your desire to learn from colleagues.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that "learning at work" is something only junior or entry-level staff are supposed to do. Quite the contrary: being open to others' ideas positions you as modest, easy to get along with, and the opposite of a rigid or preachy "father" figure.