Why the 40s-and-beyond talent pool needs to be tapped

Anjali Varma | Updated on April 01, 2021

This demographic brings experience, wisdom and judgment to the table — attributes that cannot be taught and strengths that leverage skills, knowledge and the ability to connect the dots

The Turkish author Elif Shafak makes a pertinent observation in her best-seller, The Forty Rules of Love — the number 40 is said to be the “numerical refrain” across the world and is given pride of place across cultures, as well as across the human lifecycle (think “40 days after birth”, “40 days of mourning”, and so on). She goes on to say that the age of 40 is “one that heralds an awakening and a new lease of life”.

In her Forbes article titled “4 Phases of Women’s Careers, Part II: The Potential of the 40s, 50s and Beyond”, the author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox describes the 20s as one of ambition, the 30s as a period of “culture shock”, the 40s as a phase of re-acceleration and the 50s as a time for self-actualisation.

If these references are to be taken at face value, the 40s do seem to have a certain gravitas, a perceptible advantage and a definite liberating factor irrespective of geography or time period. Contrary to the earlier and common perceptions that 40-somethings were ‘over the hill’, or ‘dinosaurs’, the 40s in fact bring with them an attitude of carpe diem.

Mid-point of career graph

The 40s are also significant for another reason. Halfway through life — if current life expectancy is to be considered — 40 is often the time to pause, self-appraise and focus on what really plays to one’s unique personal strengths. It is also a mid-point of the career graph, and the time when one starts to mull over the next 20 years of organised work, and how they should pan out; for instance, what are the areas where one must channelise energies, knowing that there is so much left to contribute? It is also a time to acquire new skills, but more importantly, to put to good use skills that have been picked up, honed and mastered in the first half of the career.

If one has to liberally generalise on the work-life phenomenon, the 40s are also (often) a time when among the “four burners” of work, family, friends and health — the career “burner” has the greatest potential to be “blazing” while the one with parental/familial responsibilities is reduced to a steady “simmer” or is in auto-pilot mode. This can also be a time when career tracks pivot — by answering to the “wake-up” call of vocation or the need to explore an area of specialisation or passion. This is confirmed by the fact that the percentage of the adult population involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity in India is highest in the age group of 35-44.

On paper, tapping into this demographic seems logical and foolproof for an organisation. After all, the prospective employee is bringing experience, wisdom and judgment to the table — attributes that cannot be taught and strengths that only grey hairs bestow — and I don’t mean “adult supervision” portfolios but those that leverage skills, knowledge and the ability to connect the dots.

But the reality on the ground is different. This demographic remains under-represented across organisations. What fails them — especially if they are “lane changers” — is that they don’t fall into a neat bucket for the recruiter or hiring manager — who are comfortable with a linear and unbroken trajectory in one particular domain, and a close match to the job description at hand. The candidates are expected to go back to the drawing board because they fall short in “hands-on” work and are embarking on a new area of expertise.

Hiring women

Organisations are also wary of hiring women who opted for a sabbatical or a work hiatus as they pose a certain “risk” in the numbers of boxes they check. While designing larger portfolios, organisations are unable to visualise how women who have ‘shifted lanes’ or are ‘returning to the workplace’ will be able to manage the new responsibilities or even the work pressure, given the lack of proven track record in that area.

There is something India Inc is missing out on here — and we’re talking not just of glass ceilings but of “false ceilings”. Organisations can do much to ensure that this demographic is not just championed but actively sought out for senior and leadership roles. Hiring ads that promote and seek out experienced women; bots who are programmed to ensure that these resumes are not falling into a black box; these are all minor tweaks that will help women who are changing lanes or returning to work, and will ensure that they are not eliminated by automated filters. That’s the first major hurdle.

Training hiring managers (of all genders) to be cognisant of unconscious bias and tweaking the hiring process to include report analysis and case studies and assignments will allow more women to showcase their capabilities and expertise and raise the conversion of interviews to offers.

A culture of hiring on potential (and not just on past experience) will bring about a balance between prioritising people with skills and not with domain knowledge. Companies should run programmes designed to sensitise employees on age discrimination, thereby spreading awareness and breaking pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about age, and the associated ability to take on challenging assignments.

Newer modes of employment

The good news is that there are opportunities and newer modes of employment available today. The gig economy and the virtual workplace have added possibilities for people inhabiting the 40s and beyond to join the organised workplace. As a society and as leaders and decision-makers in organisations we need to break generalisations about age and career gaps — we need to advocate the importance of fungible and transferable skills and look for broad learnability in our recruitment process.

We need to invest in the stories of senior women who ‘returned’ after a conscious career break or those who changed paths so that these narratives normalise these “breaks” and “shifts”. We need to seek out this talent pool more proactively than we have ever done before.

In the seasons of life, 40s are the years signifying maturity and as Keats in his poem To Autumn expounded — the songs of autumn have their music too. Organisations need only to listen.

The writer is an independent Human Resources consultant based in Bengaluru.

Published on April 01, 2021

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