How can I beat my bosses’ ageism?
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How can I beat my bosses’ ageism?

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Managers are uncomfortable with me now I’m in my mid-50s

Dear OG,

One of my key themes in this column is this: focus on the world as it is, not as it should be. Bankers often make a career-limiting mistake by clinging to principles beyond what’s practical.

That doesn’t mean you should bad treatment. It means thinking strategically about what you can and can’t change.

You’re right to see suing your employer for age discrimination as a last resort, only if your situation is irretrievable (and you must have incontrovertible evidence). I assume you’re writing to me because you think you can turn this around.

So here are my three pieces of advice: lift weights; use humour; and be more vocal and upbeat than ever. Oh, and fourthly, take notes and collect evidence (just in case none of the first three works).

We can debate the merits of this philosophy, but professional services firms, especially sales-oriented ones, often value athleticism and physical dynamism.

They recruit candidates who have played sports at a high level. This reflects, arguably, the Americanisation of banking culture.

Age discrimination may be illegal, but we see it in all walks of life

While there are successful bankers who are overweight and unfit, they’re a dying breed (figuratively, I should stress, although in some case maybe the stress is making that a literal condition) in an era when fitness is prized. Banks, law firms and consultancies like to hire ‘jocks’.

There’s even the weirdly neo-Calvinist view that if a person stays fit, she or he must have the discipline and endurance to win business and withstand the competitive pressures of the industry. It’s not logical or even coherent, but it is the way many bankers think.

A corollary to this worship of fitness and sport is that youthful vigour is seen as a virtue. Sure, there is a belief — similarly bereft of empirical basis — that age brings wisdom and good judgement. But nowadays the trend is to treat those much over 50 as long on grey and short on eminence.

Performance evaluations often measure bankers on qualities such as hunger and passion, and they tend to be associated with youth and energy.

In this context you don’t want to be perceived as a dull functionary who has lost his or her fastball, or half a yard of pace.

The term ‘male, pale and stale’ is used to disparage white middle-aged men, but similar sentiments can be applied to women or people of colour who are of a certain vintage.

Age discrimination may be illegal, but we see it in all walks of life; the media glorifies youth too. There’s a sense that energy seeps out of the room when a 50-something walks into it.

You need to look like you can go the distance

But age is just a number. You need to recapture your youthful vim and vigour. That doesn’t mean you have to attend raves, wear face jewellery and dye your hair blue. But you need to look like you can go the distance.

And that means getting in shape. Seriously good shape. Pump iron! Weightlifting gives you size and definition, as opposed to that scrawny look you can get from the extreme cardio stuff. And walk with good posture and your chest proud, not hunched over like a knuckle-dragging simian. Exude power and energy.

(Quick note: I’m assuming you are in reasonable health and do not suffer from a disability and you can find an appropriate exercise programme. Check with a doctor beforehand. That’s important.)

As they say, on your deathbed no one will remember how hard you worked, how much money you made, or how much revenue you generated — but they will remember how much you benched.

OK, that’s a joke, but you get my point.

And that leads to my next point. When someone mentions age, you have to disarm your colleagues with humour. Some (but not too much) of it should be self-deprecating. It should refer to the age difference, but with a light touch.

Done right, humour has two virtues. First, mild irreverence connotes a modern mindset, not a hidebound mentality, undermining arguments that you’re so old you should be put out to pasture.

Second, it makes explicit the issue of age. Most senior bankers are acutely nervous about legal liability, especially around discrimination, and so they may be stumped on how to respond and shy away.

You’re forcing them either to be explicit about the discrimination, which could land them in massive legal and HR problems, or — more likely — to wilfully bury their problem about your age.

What kind of humour? Well, it’s very contextual, and I can’t give you prefab lines. But if you’ve made it to a senior level at a bank, you will know how to use humour to disarm the whippersnappers who are nipping at your heels.

Be funny, but don’t go overboard. The occasional bit of self-deprecation works, as long as you avoid self-humiliation. You don’t have to bring a skateboard to work and act like Steve Buscemi in this 30 Rock skit.

The classic example involves Ronald Reagan’s second presidential election debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. After age had become an issue in the campaign, Reagan, then 73 to Mondale's 56, quipped that he wasn’t going to exploit for political purposes his opponent’s youth and inexperience. It put the issue to rest.

Mondale was 17 years younger than Reagan

A disarming joke can turn the issue to your advantage. Reagan even made his opponent laugh.

Third, be vocal and be upbeat. Speak up and speak often. Don’t be condescending. Boring old timers lecture and preach. You want to act like a role model whom the young uns want to emulate, someone who is cool and confident.

Put the ‘leader’ in ‘cheerleader’. It’s easy to get that hangdog look when you sense that people think you’re a desiccated, withered old fart, and they don’t welcome your presence. Ignore them. Speak up because you have a lot to say but try to stay as positive as you can.

But age and treachery — sorry, wisdom — can and do beat youth and skill. So do take contemporaneous notes and collect any evidence of any remarks or actions reflecting age discrimination. Just in case.

You really don’t want to be filing grievances and threatening lawsuits, but you need to have a back-up plan if all else fails.

Act young but not callow, show enthusiasm but not immaturity, mentor but do not condescend.

There’s no point lamenting that — to quote the title of Cormac McCarthy’s book, later turned into a superb movie — this is no country for old men (or women).

Nor is there any point raging at the cloud that is your impotence, like Abraham Simpson. Strive to be the banker all the young folks want to be when they grow up.


Welcome to GlobalCapital's new agony aunt column, called New Issues.

Each week, capital markets veteran and now GC columnist, Craig Coben, will bring his decades of experience at the highest levels of the industry to bear on your professional problems.

Passed over for promotion? Toxic client? Stuck in a dead end job, or been out of the market for so long you'd bite someone's hand off for one?

If you have a dilemma you would like Craig to tackle, please write in complete confidentiality to agony@globalcapital.com


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