Course content will have to change to meet the needs of increasingly older cohorts, says Nic Paton

Visualise an MBA graduate and, most likely, you'll come up with a confident, articulate white male in his late twenties or early thirties. And, despite the best efforts of most business schools to promote diversity, most of the time you'll be right.

The average age for an MBA student in the UK hovers somewhere between 26 and 35. But as the West's working population ages there are signs that we could be on the verge of a fundamental shift in who is considered "right" for an MBA and how they are taught.

Over time there will be fewer "classic" MBA students coming through, predicts Chris Bones, principal of Henley Management College, which has an average student age of 37 - higher than most schools.

In turn many older workers, perhaps even on their third careers, will be looking to gain the MBA initials. "There is a sense that when you are 40, instead of being 15 to 20 years off retirement you will be 20 to 30 years off because you will be living longer. So what we are already seeing is people crossing sectors in their mid-forties," he says. "As the younger students fall off, a lot of the business schools will find life uncomfortable."

At 51, Richard Hallows, director of social and community services at Vale Royal Borough Council in Cheshire, was by far the oldest student on his part-time executive MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, in 2003: "The ages ranged from 26, with most in their mid-thirties. But it was a pleasure to study with them.

"It will definitely change the way I manage. It has given me extra tools and skills," adds Hallows.

Unlike thrusting twenty- or thirty-somethings looking to leg it up the corporate greasy pole, older students are often more interested in consolidating the informal learning they have built up over their first career to help start a new one, suggests Malcolm Kirkup, director of the full-time MBA at Lancaster University Management School: "They want to change direction at quite a late stage and are looking for the credibility on paper that they will get from an MBA."

Perhaps the biggest change is likely to be felt in the US, where MBA students have traditionally been much younger than in the UK and Europe, averaging around 23 or 24.

"I went to a conference at Wharton and there were all these 22 to 23-year-olds. We did a tour with a nice young MBA student who told us about all the parties they went to and which students were the most attractive. It was not what I would have expected from an MBA," recalls one European dean scathingly .

At Babson College, the average age is now 27 to 28 but rising, says Mark P Rice, Murata, dean at the F W Olin Graduate School of Business. This is mostly because of the dramatically increasing number of older workers applying to join its two-year fast-track MBA, which is part classroom-based and part distance-learning. "To some extent, the change will be related to demographics, but I suspect the age will also increase as we discover that the MBA has much more value for people with more experience," he says.

"The MBA may continue to serve a broad range of age groups, but in response the curriculum will be customised for different age groups. We are already doing that at Babson," he adds.

Employer attitudes, both in terms of who they expect an MBA graduate to be and who they should consider sponsoring, are likely to have to change too, suggests Aidan Hetherington, careers officer at Edinburgh University Management School: "I have often spoken to HR departments and they are not necessarily that clued up about what an MBA entails. Some think it's just someone with a bit more experience."

In fact, over time it may even be that the very qualification of the MBA may need to be re-examined. "I expect we will need to have a wider range of more flexible qualifications," forecasts Henley's Chris Bones.

Similarly, the maximum 20 per cent exemption for prior experience may have to be rethought. "If you have 40 years' wisdom behind you, you are not going to want to have to go back to basics. People may well simply walk away," he adds.

The key thing, argues Hallows, is for older workers not to self-select themselves out by assuming they are too long in the tooth to benefit from an MBA: "You are never too old to do it. It has been great fun and extremely challenging. It is bloody hard work but you should never stop learning."

'The conversation about pensions has extended people's working horizons'

A new career at 55? Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) MBA student Terry Clarke certainly hopes so.

A former vice-president of finance and operations for sportswear company Reebok, Clarke, 55, is midway through an MBA at LUMS and loving it.

"I had come to a decision that after 16 years I was an expert at Reebok but wanted to join the rest of the world," he laughs. "I looked at various options, including Harvard's three-month course, but an MBA seemed a good opportunity to get off the treadmill and have a think about things," he explains.

"I have had a couple of offers already and I am just waiting to see what happens."

Although most of his 65-strong cohort were in their late twenties and early thirties, there were some older students, including one also in his fifties.

With children graduated and the mortgage paid off, it can in fact make more sense, at least financially, to do an MBA later in life, he argues.

"I think all the conversation about pensions and older working has extended people's working horizons beyond 60 or 65.

"For me, I am probably not going to change my career in terms of stopping being a manager, but going back into the workplace with a qualification like this will, I think, be really valuable," he adds.