In Australia there is often an overt bias against employing older workers. In a recent business magazine article, a recruitment consultant stated he doesn’t look at anybody over 35. These are some of the preconceptions often aired: older workers can’t change; they are not as creative; they can’t think laterally; they are not open to learning; they cost more to hire. What is your approach to hiring older workers? If you were looking for a position, how would you look to overcome the ageism barrier?

C. Goldsworthy, Australia

Thank you for your questions! It is an especially appropriate time for me to address the issues of age and the work force, as I turned 60 in July.

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This year I ran my first marathon in just over five hours and tried to set a record as the oldest person to kite-surf across the English Channel (high winds forced me to abandon the attempt for this year)—both tasks usually associated with younger people. And I’m not alone. These days, people are living much longer, active lives so retiring at a relatively young age is no longer necessary. If a person looks after himself with regular exercise and a good diet, there is no reason why he should not keep going well past 60.

I plan to continue to work until I feel that I’m no longer making a real contribution to Virgin. I see a good 30 years of work ahead of me. It’s true that at 60, there are some tasks that suit me better than others, but I see few real limitations to continuing in my current role.

In the UK, the government has recommended extending the age of retirement to 67, and many countries in the rest of Europe are contemplating similar legislation. It is not just governments, but company boards around the world that are now facing the challenges of serving aging populations.

So while it is certainly true that some employers may have negative preconceptions about hiring older workers, they are only doing themselves and their businesses a disservice. Entrepreneurs and managers who hope to succeed are taking a close look at older applicants.

There are real advantages to hiring these employees. Studies have shown that older workers may lower time-keeping and absentee issues within a business; they also tend to have higher levels of commitment to their jobs and loyalty to their employers, which reduces staff churn and helps to reduce recruitment costs.

And there is a strong business case for companies to diversify the age groups they employ. In all our ventures, we put a real emphasis on offering great service, and to succeed, we must truly understand our customers and see our service through their eyes. As our and others’ customer bases get older, managers will need staffers who themselves reflect the changing demographics.

This is a challenge for Virgin since we have tended to be quite young at heart. Currently, the average age of the group is still fairly young, with at least one third of our staff under the age of 35 and only around 3% over 55 years old.

This is largely determined by a few factors, including the sectors that we operate in and the newcomer status of some of the businesses. For example, Virgin Active, our health club chain, attracts a younger work force due to the physical nature of the work.

As the challengers to established brands, our airlines—Virgin America, Atlantic and Blue—have tended to be magnets for younger cabin crews and ground staff, which impacts the group’s average age. Even our finance business has younger staff —again, people interested in the company’s challenger status and also in new product development. But as we prepare for the future, this is a factor that clearly needs to change.

How? Well, many businesses retire their experienced staffers, both to cut costs when times get tough and as a matter of course. But those employers can lose a lot of key skills when workers with a wealth of knowledge and experience leave the business.

One answer is to become more accommodating in work arrangements. Offering part-time jobs, job shares, flexitime and full-time jobs with longer holidays may attract older workers. This would enable everyone—and not just older employees!— to strike a better work-life balance and allow companies to retain their skills and experience.

I hope that with this approach, our group will continue to maintain a very open policy of recruitment and that ageism will not be an issue. Hiring older workers isn’t just the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense.



Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog

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