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Why 55 is the new mid-career – tapping into the mature workforce

Looking for talent? Our ‘go-to’ reflex is the mid-career candidate. Why wouldn’t it be? Mid-career employees are rich with experience, and their soft skills finely tuned. Smart move. Unless your assumption is that mid-career is 35 years plus?  

55 is the new mid-career. If you view this demographic as older or mature, get with the times; it’s the new black. It seems we are fascinated by freshness and innovation, pinning this accolade to the venerated youth, even when the reality is axiomatic. Through invention, innovation, discovery, and contribution, the Nobel Prize is presented for the greatest benefit to mankind and the average age is close to 60.  

It is our subconscious bias and even prejudices. Probe the assumptions of your bias and allow the opportunities for your new mid-career candidates to walk in.   

The new black

Understandably, we view 55 as older; the statistics back it up. In 1970 life expectancy was 71 years, and now it is 83 years of age. The average retirement age in 2004-05 was 62.3 years and now, close to a quarter (22.6%) have no intention of retiring until 70 years plus. Workforce tenure has extended, shifting the median bracket to align at mid-50.  

Currently, Australia has 5 generations working together. The first time in our working history, and fortuitously, our 55-year-old, Gen X, sits right in the middle. There is no debate; 55 is the new mid-career, opening a new spectrum to view and source talent.  

And yet we don’t, choosing instead to grapple with Australia’s ongoing skills shortage and ageism concurrently. Unemployment is at a record low of 4%, and lose your job past the age of 50; you will struggle to gain employment. A survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission shows discrimination is highest among the ages of 55 to 64 years. Even worse, a third (33%) of people discriminated against in this group gave up looking for work. I’m not surprised and don’t need a survey to tell me this. As an owner of a recruitment business, I witness the shocking reality of ageism every day.

Performance and skills

For those believing there is a difference in the performance of an older worker, you would be mistaken. Research shows no difference between older and younger workers, and scientific evidence shows for most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise, the main predictors of job performance, keep increasing beyond the age of 80.  

Equally, let’s not put our heads in the sand. Of course, our 55-year old’s have their imperfections too. In his book ‘Wisdom & Work: The Making of a Modern Elder’, entrepreneur and writer Chip Conley speaks about the reinvention of the mature professional, and he knows both worlds. He founded his first successful business at the age of 26 and then joined another one (Airbnb) at 52.  

Accordingly, to thrive at mid-career requires ‘wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to evolve’. I also know for some mature workers, this mindset can be a challenge.  

But surely, as supportive employers, our job is to encourage and assist employees on their journey, the same as any other employee.  

Our talent shortage isn’t isolated to Australia. It’s global and has been brewing well before COVID-19. In the U.S, job vacancies have outnumbered job applicants since 2018. Australia tells a similar story. If your rhetoric is to believe our skills shortage will fix itself and revert as soon as the pandemic settles, I would encourage a rethink of your hypothesis. And at the same time, any age bias, that is, if you want to tackle your talent and staffing issues head-on.  

Besides expertise, the mid-career candidate offers your workforce diversity of intellect, much needed in any team environment. The best problem-solving requires cognitive heterogeneity. Your customers, stakeholders and shareholders expect it. At 55 plus, your worker is resilient, having experienced losses and victories, knowing it is part of life’s givens. They have met and worked with every possible personality type and can better read and communicate with people. 

And what of your team? The pandemic forever altered our view on how we work. The expectations of businesses and leaders have never been higher. Our workforce demands empathy, care, compassion, a social conscience, authenticity, transparency and more. All human skills. Who better to impart these skills than the mid-career, seasoned worker at 55 years.  

The untapped potential of a mature workforce has never been more attractive and compelling than today. A profusion of talent yet to be tapped into. What are we waiting for?  

Roxanne Calder, author of ‘Employable – 7 Attributes to Assuring Your Working Future’ (Major Street $29.95), is the founder and managing director of EST10 – one of Sydney’s most successful administration recruitment agencies.

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