Recruitment: Conquering age bias

Helen Gregory discovers how older generations fare in an industry renowned for being 'a young person's game'.

Asda and B&Q are renowned for recruiting older people in their 50s and 60s. They are lauded for their empathy, wisdom and experience. But while age is recognised as a virtue by these firms, PR seems strangely lagging behind the times, apparently viewing age as a limiter in frontline duties, rather than an opportunity to bring experience to a role.

According to recruitment agency Xchangeteam, PR agency clients are reluctant to take on older people despite their skills and experience - in some cases even stipulating they do not want anyone over 35, says CEO Emma Brierley. 'I think they feel threatened,' she says. 'It certainly has nothing to do with an older member of staff wanting more money or because their experience is not right.'

Soon though, PR departments with this attitude could be answering to the law courts. Not only will there be many more older than younger people in the workforce, new European legislation takes effect next October, which will outlaw any kind of discrimination in the workplace. So, can PR ever be sold on hiring older people?

Party people?

PR is famously a young person's game. It is seriously hard work, fast-paced and notorious for long hours with plenty of client pressure to deliver. After ten or 15 years at the coal-face, many people have either gone into management, set up their own agency, or just had enough. And there has long been an excess of bright young things trying to replace them.

'We are not ageist and have a clear equal opportunities policy, but we just do not get older people applying for account managers' jobs,' says Nelson Bostock MD Martin Bostock. 'We would not turn them away as there is a chronic shortage of account managers upwards at the moment.'

Whether older people do not apply because they don't want to, or fear the prejudice if they do, is unclear. It could be a chicken and egg situation. 'I get 30 CVs a week and, while very few are from older people, I would happily interview them,' claims icas PR's HR director Emma Wright. But she adds: 'If they were 40-plus, I would want to know why they had not progressed from an account manager.'

A simple change in career, it would appear, is frowned upon, even though it happens in other sectors (such as people becoming teachers later in life) without the stigma.

'Has been' by 30

'PR is a young person's game, because of the party and launches lifestyle,' says Frank PR managing director Graham Goodkind, who believes it should be a job you start straight out of university at 21. 'You have either made it or you haven't by the time you are 30, and it is not tremendously well paid until you get to a senior level. It is a bit like acting.'

Weber Shandwick deputy CEO Sally Ward agrees: 'It is long hours, very stressful and you need high levels of energy, which conflicts with the aspirations of older people.'

Admittedly, it could be tough for 40 to 50-year-olds to work alongside colleagues straight out of university. Socialising informally could be an issue, and more menial jobs might not appeal. But as retailers and other industries have discovered, employing older people has many advantages - particularly their ability to remain calm without knee-jerk reactions.

Justin Kent, the founder of PR recruitment consultancy PRJS, argues older people's experience is golden: 'Being 40 does not make you any more talented, but by then people are usually calmer and look at things in a mature way - they have made the mistakes already.'

Some PR teams that do employ older people realise this, and Ward says she has them working on Saga and Viagra accounts, targeting older people. 'Mature workers have a good understanding of these clients' target age group,' says Ward. 'Older people with families have a different view of life and can relate to these age groups.'

A question of mind

Saga Services head of comms Paul Green has a team of five, four of whom are over 30. He says that with a target of people aged 50-plus, it helps having older people who can relate to the customers: 'As long as age does not deaden enthusiasm, it is a terrific asset.'

The pattern here is that these PROs promote products aimed at older people but, according to Age Concern director of comms Steve Jones, their work should not be limited to this.

Its own press office has PROs in their 40s and 50s, but he says older PROs often have better skills and can be more confident: 'It is wrong to suggest that older PR people could only deal with clients who work with older people themselves - it is a question of attitude of mind.'

Some might say it is question of image, and thrusting an older PRO in front of a young techy client might raise eyebrows. However, Wright says she increasingly uses freelance PROs who are older, because she believes more clients want to talk to someone senior. 'Consultants are experts in their sector. I just want the best person for the job. I know I can trust them and that they will teach stuff to younger team members.'

Sadly, Brierley believes no amount of legislation will change some attitude: 'Even if we do leave age off CVs, clients still ask how old that person is or makes their own judgement from appearances.'

Even when PR firms make a real effort to accommodate changing demographics, they can hit a brick wall. Goodkind planned to set up a division tailored to grey market accounts, employing older PR workers - but he could not find anyone suitable for the job.

It seems that older people are slowly finding their way into PR, either through an in-house route where they can work solely on one brand rather than juggling clients or, perhaps more successfully, as a consultant or freelance.

Ageism is less of an issue for freelances as they are typically needed to hit the ground running. But as Ward says: 'The PR industry needs to recognise this, adapt to it and employ older people.'

'MATURITY ADDS GRAVITAS'

Furlong PR founder Ross Furlong (bottom right), first ran a publishing company, where he was impressed by writer Rupert Suren. After he set up his PR business, Furlong decided to continue the relationship and Suren was later hired as an associate.

The pair claim to be ignorant of each other's ages - Furlong is 36 while Suren is 53 - but Furlong insists it is irrelevant: 'Age didn't come into it. Very few people I have come across have such good knowledge of our main field - the DM industry - as Rupert.'

Furlong admits it can sometimes feel odd in the office as there is a tendency to defer to age, but Suren's maturity is particularly useful in meetings, where he can add gravitas.

Suren agrees that age works in his favour when dealing with blue-chip clients who can be of a similar age. 'I think I can empathise more easily with them than a spiky-haired youth.'

He acknowledges that Furlong looks a lot younger but that once they are bouncing ideas off each other, you would not know there was an age gap.

Late nights are also not an issue, says Suren: 'If you are physically and mentally fit it is not a problem. I would encourage other older people to go into PR.'

'I NEED FLEXIBILITY'

'I've never thought about my age - PR is an energetic, challenging job which gives me the freedom to be creative,' explains Elaine Hart, PR and events manager for the central region at Help the Aged.

At 43, Elaine believes her life experience has given her more confidence than she had 20 years ago, and although she's working with 20-something colleagues, she's never felt awkward in their company or suffered any kind of age discrimination.

However, she admits: 'I work long hours and, as a single mum, I am not sure that I could work for any other organisation as Help the Aged gives me the flexibility to work around early starts and late nights.'

'HISTORICAL CONTEXT'

Edelman crisis management director Mike Seymour, 61, enjoys being part of a team and having colleagues around him with ideas and enthusiasm.

'I get a lot of energy from people I work with - it keeps you sharp,' he says.

In his field - understanding a firm's problems and putting them into a historical context - age helps.

His preference for a lively workplace also explains why he decided not to go it alone when the business he set up - First&42nd - was taken over by Edelman a few years ago.

'After 17 years in the field, I am used to long hours and have learnt how to pace myself,' he adds.

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