What’s wrong with being awesome?

Megan McArdle says that old people laid off in the recession find it hard to get work because

…older workers have more skills. In general, more skills is a good thing. But in an increasingly specialized society, those skills are increasingly specific,. The more skills you have, the fewer jobs there are that match them.

I don’t really get this. If you’re more experienced then you have more skills and more specialised skills. But you were once junior so you have mastery of all the skills that junior people have in addition to your specialised skills. I can accept that you might struggle to get a job utilising all your skills but, since you’ve been there and done that, you can probably do a junior job way better than a junior person.

If I were an employer looking for a cheap person and someone who used to be in a senior position in the industry applied, then why would I say no? i can think of two reasons: first, I might want someone to mould rather than someone who’s already got opinions about how to do the job. Secondly, the older person might want a higher wage.

The first case is conceivable but, in weighing it up against the extra skill of the older person, I doubt it would consistently come out on top. The second seems to be a problem with the inflexibility of the older person, not with a job market that has no opportunity for them. If they were willing to be flexible about their wage then why would there be no opportunity for the older person? I really can’t see how having more skills makes one less employable.

11 replies
  1. Homepaddock
    Homepaddock says:

    “I don’t really get this.”

    Nor do I. Skills can be transferable and with age comes experience which could be applied to a variety of positions.

    During the ag-sag of the 80s, farmers forced to seek other work were concerned they weren’t qualified for other work but most found they were able to do all sort of jobs.

  2. Moz
    Moz says:

    It seems to be partly about expectations – surely the more experienced employee will be worth more than they’re getting paid so will soon find a better job. Thus the foolish employer is out the training costs as well as the emotional cost of being wrong.

  3. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Very true rauparaha. I have heard from a number of older people who aren’t willing to be flexible with there wage demands and then are confused about why they can’t get work …

    I would also note that employers can see an employee as a long-term asset – and older workers probably depreciate more quickly on average.

    Also there may be skills which, on average, are age specific – and choosing employees based on age may be the result of the “age signal”.

    Overall – I agree that saying older people are “too skilled” isn’t an argument that holds water …

  4. rainman
    rainman says:

    I get this.

    I have a fairly wide range of skills and my circumstances are now such that I am much more flexible about pay (particularly when vs. other aspects, such as security) than I was when I was younger, but I would not even get a look in at many jobs out there. Getting recruiters to consider me for roles that are “beneath me”, or consider skills I haven’t used in a while but can still do – fuggedaboutit. Forget about hiring managers paying attention to attitude, work ethic and maturity. Or thinking of me outside of a very narrow range of my recent, specific industry, experience. And I am motivated to work, not overly fussy about what I do, and (within reason…) a comparative bargain. Although 30 is a distant memory, I’m not old, and retirement is still a long way away…

    I have several friends in the same age bracket who have been made redundant, and they have only found employment way further down from where they were, and usually in unrelated fields. Some have formed consulting businesses but often that’s just a way of doing the same stuff as before but at lower pay and with fewer hours 🙂

    This may sound like an irrelevant question, but how old are you guys? Anyone here over 50? 40? 35? Reason I ask is because, when I was younger, I didn’t get it either…

  5. Tom M
    Tom M says:

    The way Megan phrases it doesn’t make sense. Surely the more skills you have the more jobs might fit them.

    However, I suspect what she’s getting at is that older people:
    a) are less elastic with respect to wages, perhaps because they have been earning steadily increasing wages most of their life and thus feel like they are losing more
    b) are perceived as less open to change and innovation
    c) aren’t perceived as being in it for the long term, so presumably carry higher average transaction costs (because in the long term you have to hire more of them as they retire).

    I am not sure that any of those are true or fair, but some combination of them might be what motivates employers to hire younger people on average.

    But this is speculation, I have never hired anyone!

  6. jb
    jb says:

    I assume that many of the skills that I acquire when I was 25 will no longer be useful at 50. And a lot of the mindset that I grew up grows more outdated over time.

    Think about it another way – let’s say Jack Welch came out of retirement and wanted to work for you. Even if his salary expectations were reasonable, I’d still hesitate to hire him – he has a tremendous amount of “GE baggage” that would make it hard for him to fit in to other companies. And he has a similarly large amount of “CEO baggage” that would make it hard for him to adapt to a less senior role. Lastly, I’d worry about his “80s baggage” that would make it difficult for him to adapt to a 21st century business.

    This is not to say I wouldn’t consider hiring someone because they are older. But I would be very careful to make sure that they were more or less “up to date”.

  7. John Hunter
    John Hunter says:

    I agree it might be that people hold out for a salary above what the employer wants to pay. If they don’t need the extra experience they may well decided paying for it isn’t worthwhile. So if you want that job, taking less pay may be necessary.

    I think another thing some employers could worry about is the cost of turnover. So if they believe the person is better but will leave in 6 months (because they are underpaid and are qualified for higher paying jobs) they may be reluctant to hire. So it can be that the great experience is actually a negative factor. Now I think that is most often not a huge factor (the added value of more experience may well be more than the extra predicted cost of turnover) but it could be seen as a negative in that way (when they believe the candidate needs the job now, but as soon as the market picks up a bit they will find another job and leave).

  8. insider
    insider says:

    I’ve never understood the whole investing in staff for the long term. Who is more likely to stay: the older person with a family and mortgage or the 20 something ready for an OE, or 30 something with transferable skills?

    Given most companies in NZ are small the scope for keeping people is limited as opportunities are. I wonder what average tenure is?

    I think it in part dependson the type of role. If you want dynamic and creative you may think an older person is less able to redefine the business they work in to stay ahead. If you value precision and process, you may find and older person is better (and happier as they may have fewer other worries in life). Their experience may also help in refining processes.

    I wonder if there is also an issue of managers feeling threatened by people who may know a lot more than them?

  9. Moz
    Moz says:

    I still recall one of my employers in NZ saying (without embarrassment) that they prided themselves on hiring the best and paying 10% below the going rate before going into a rant about how ungrateful graduates used the company to get experience then quit as soon as they could find another job. That seems all too typical in NZ.

    Right now I’m getting quite a few “we’re looking for someone we can train up in our way of doing things” type comments, which I’m interpreting as “we think you’re old and inflexible”. Recent qualifications in new areas notwithstanding…

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