Wall Street’s Older Workers Worry Over Job Security

Aging workers perceive employers want youth, hunger, dynamism

By Dana Wilkie Oct 9, 2014
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A large majority of Wall Street workers over 50 are “very concerned” their age would be an obstacle in finding a new job or have felt discouraged from applying to a position because of their age, according to a September 2014 survey from eFinancialCareers.

“Generally, people feel like employers would rather hire young, hungry, dynamic people as opposed to someone with a lot of experience,” said James Bennett, global managing director at eFinancialCareers, a financial services career website. 

The survey, conducted in the summer of 2014, polled nearly 5,000 finance professionals in the United Kingdom, U.S., Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, France, Germany and the Middle East. Nine hundred were based in the U.S. and 1,509 in the U.K. 

Of those age 50 or older in the U.S., six in 10 have felt discouraged from applying to a position on the grounds of their age, and almost seven in 10 said they’d be very concerned their age would be an impediment if looking for a new job. Wall Street workers who were ages 40 to 49 also felt at a disadvantage because of advancing age, with one in three saying they fear for their job security. Only about one in 10 Wall Street employees under age 40 felt the same way, the survey found. 

While older employees tend to worry about job security in most occupations, aging workers in high finance are more concerned than those “in a typical industry,” said Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a training, learning and development company for businesses. 

“I think that, increasingly, finance is being seen as a young person's game, given the long work hours, high risk tolerance and burnout factor,” he said. “A lot of times, [hiring managers] will couch age discrimination with the phrase ‘over-qualified.’ Another subtle clue may be, ‘Your personality may not be a fit for the job requirements.’ ”

Bruce Tulgan, founder of management training firm RainmakerThinking, said the perception of age bias tends to be more pronounced in high finance than in fields that do not require the same kind of “muscular competitiveness, work ethic, endurance and tenacity that’s required on Wall Street.” 

Tulgan cautioned, however, that when the survey asked how respondents felt about “job security,” that phrase may have meant different things to different age groups. 

“A much higher percentage of those in the 40 to 60-plus [age] category, compared with those who are 22- to 39-years-old, are likely to still think about job security as long-term employment with their current organization,” he said. 

Tulgan suggested—based on his own research at RainmakerThinking—that a higher percentage of 22- to -39-year-olds “probably think about job security as the ability to leverage skills and efforts in the overall marketplace”—whether that means in a current job or at a comparable job within an industry, he said. 

Differences by Country 

Respondents in the U.S. displayed much more concern about age discrimination than those in the U.K., Bennett said. 

Employment laws in Europe are more in favor of the employee than they are in the U.S.,” he said, noting that many U.S. employees, unlike U.K. employees, work “at will”—meaning they can be fired at any time, for any reason, so long as the reason doesn’t run afoul of anti-discrimination laws. “Perhaps that gives people in the U.K. some level of comfort that they have legislative protections in place.” 

Of the countries included in the poll, Singapore respondents demonstrated the highest level of angst about age discrimination, he said. 

“Financial services in Singapore is less relationship-driven than elsewhere,” Bennett said. “In London and Hong Kong and New York, you have a lot of client-facing roles, which means that senior finance professionals who have a lot of relationships tend to be more valuable to employers. In Singapore, there are a lot of middle- and back-office roles and a lot of transactional work.”

Bennett pointed out that the survey reflects workers’ perceptions about age discrimination--not necessarily the reality of discrimination. Regardless, he acknowledged that such perceptions can be fueled by company cost-cutting measures that target those with higher salaries, who tend to be senior employees. 

“Is that discrimination based on age, or is it based on the thinking that a company needs to cut costs by letting go of 10 of these [lower-paying jobs] or two of these [higher-paying ones]? I’m not sure that’s necessarily age discrimination, but if XYZ company takes out 10 percent of its senior managers, you could see why that might feel as if it’s discriminatory.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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