Secretarial: Life begins at 40? Not for secretaries, it doesn't

Older workers may be conscientious, loyal and better educated than their juniors - but ageism still stalks the workplace.
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The Independent Culture
NOT A week goes by when recruitment agencies across Britain don't receive calls and letters from secretaries pleading, "Help, I'm over 40 and I can't get a job." Their response? "It's crazy," laments Sarah Eldoori, of Office Angels. "Research consistently shows that both staff turnover and absenteeism are reduced among businesses with a mixed age group - and motivation and commitment are improved. What's more, older people tend to have advanced levels of numeracy and literacy. Yet many employers just don't seem to grasp this."

In fact, it is predicted that by 2020, a staggering one in four people will be over 60. "If companies still have an ageist attitude then, they'll find themselves in big trouble," says a spokeswoman for Brook Street Bureau, the latest agency specifically to encourage older workers to sign up.

The grim reality of ageism in the UK is revealed by a recent Gallup poll which found that more than 18 million Britons have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Even Jacqy Jacobs - who was instrumental in setting up Forties People, an agency that recruits mature secretaries for employers who prefer to hire experienced workers - reveals some cynicism. "We're busy," she says, "because there are always clients around who agree with what we do - but we're no busier than usual."

At least, she emphasises, temping doesn't have an age barrier. "In fact, it never has. It's probably the one sector in which experience is almost always genuinely appreciated." It's when it comes to young managers who feel uncomfortable with an permanent older secretary ("and sometimes vice versa") that the problems start to occur. "Many managers just don't want to take someone as old as their mum out for a drink with the colleagues."

Harder hit still are senior secretaries and PAs who started out working for someone many years ago and moved up the ladder with them. "When that someone retires, the secretary is left struggling to find equivalent work and an equivalent salary. Some of them are used to earning pounds 30,000 plus."

But, says Jacobs, this is a time when the more mature secretary should be particularly careful not to shoot him or herself in the foot. "I've seen some secretaries refuse to earn a penny less than their previous salary - but this is not an industry in which you can make such demands. I'm not saying that's right - it's just the way it is."

Other older secretaries don't do themselves any favours by refusing to update their skills - despite the fact that most big agencies offer free training to all their temps. Not a wise decision when you consider the survey of 250 personnel managers, carried out by Brook Street, which found that the most common reason for preferring workers under 35 was that they were seen to be familiar with modern technology.

But what about the more mature secretary who is not to blame in any way for her predicament? The Institute of Employment Consultants (IEC) believes legislation could be the answer. "Without the kind of legislation that has outlawed sex and race discrimination, the consultancy ultimately may have to choose between its client and its principles," says the chief executive, Sue Smith.

But Jacobs is not so sure. "We fight with our clients not to discriminate on things that are already against the law. In fact, I believe that older secretaries often fail to get work owing to sexism rather than ageism."

Perhaps an analysis of the recruitment industry itself may be a solution. It is, after all, often seen as a "young" industry and employment consultancies need to look at their own record in recruiting staff. It is often difficult to impress upon a client the need to consider a 50-year-old for a position if the consultancy's office is staffed only with twentysomethings.

An alternative way forward, claims the IEC, is to limit ageist phrases in job advertisements. "There is no real justification for advertising for `young' staff, or including an upper age limit on applications. Similarly, the use of ages on CVs has to be questioned."

According to Rachel Saul, who specialises in image consultancy for senior corporate women over 40, one way of helping yourself not to become a victim of ageism is to manipulate style and fashion. "It's far better to play up to the strengths of your real age than to try to become a born-again bimbo," she says. "An older woman can look stylish and sophisticated in a way that a younger woman never can."

Mary Spillane, of Color Me Beautiful, adds that most bosses want a PA or secretary who enhances their successful image. "Notice how different styles suit different ages, but remember that doesn't mean you have to be frumpy. If you're wearing shoes that are too sensible, a jacket that can only be described as `matronly', or a haircut that is rock-hard, think again. And use make-up - age can make you look more tired than you really are, and make-up can hide that."

Above all, claim experts, both employers and employees alike need to take note of how experience of life - and work - provides a perspective and staying-power that younger colleagues take years to achieve. A recent study by Nat West and Warwick University, for instance, showed that businesses started by over-50s bucked the trend of failing in the first few years, with 70 per cent continuing to thrive after 6 years. Compare this to only 19 per cent of businesses started by younger people trading after six years.