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Posted June 2008:

Harrison Ford is 65 years old. Ahmegawd, Harrison Ford is 65! That’s considered earth-shattering news. Try Google and you will get almost half a million hits for “Harrison Ford 65.” Perverse.

Sorry, I must be missing out on something. Why is it considered newsworthy that the actor Harrison Ford turned 65 while filming the fourth Indiana Jones motion picture? Because “he still wields a prehensile bullwhip with aplomb and his punches sound as though they might fell an elephant?” (The Economist)

When even the no-nonsense Newspaper The Economist falls into the tabloids’ sensationalist trap you have to start wondering: what’s the underlying assumption here? That anybody over 60 ought to be taking things more slowly? Or should not be playing the part of a fortysomething?

To me, there is nothing wrong with mentioning Harrison Ford’s age. But they way it has been linked it to his latest role is insidious and highlights our society’s all pervasive prejudice that anybody over forty is past his prime. 

You could argue that no industry, apart from the fashion industry perhaps, is more age-obsessed than the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, age discrimination is not confined to Hollywood. Expect the current presidential campaign in the United States to bring this issue to the fore: the youthful Democratic candidate Obama versus the elderly Republican McCain.   

The brewing industry is no exception here. When I attended the Canadean Beer Conference in Madrid in April and the Beverage Forum in New York in May I was surprised how easy it was to distinguish between company owners (they the ones with grey hair) and the corporate high flyers (young men in their early thirties). Making an educated guess as to who’s who was made simple by the fact that at both events there was a noticeable scarcity of salaried men in their forties and fifties. Where were they? Desperately clinging on to their desks while being sidelined in their careers, or about to set up their own business before getting the sack?

I could have added that women of all ages and people of colour were even scarcer at these events, underlining the fact that the brewing industry is still fairly male-dominated and white. Yet, that’s not my concern here.

It’s probably needless to point out that our culture’s obsession with youth dates back several thousand years. The Greeks knew that “those whom the gods love die young”. That was easily said then considering that life expectancy in Greek antiquity was 30.

Yet how desperate has our culture become if songs like the Who’s “Hope I die before I get old” and Billy Joel’s “Only the good die young” can become classics – in the sense that for several decades now they have expressed an anxiety felt by generations of Europeans and Americans?

It is somewhat paradoxical that our western culture promotes adolescence to last until we are in our thirties, while western businesses at the same time have gradually moved the onset of old age forwards to our forties. Talk to anybody with a salary and they will tell you that once they are 40+ they need no longer apply for another job.

I have no idea why corporations think that people are old once they hit forty. It is not as if we stop having good ideas once we celebrate 4-0. If this were the case, then we should sack all university professors, teachers, politicians … and executives. Why should they be the only exception to the rule?  

Funnily enough, headhunters and consultants have already begun to complain – obviously off the record and in private conversation – about a shortage of experts. I refuse to use the term “talent” here because I do not think that “talent” is sufficient for someone to hold on to a job. Talent implies being bright and full of ideas. But it equally implies that the person lacks in experience, wisdom, knowledge and the ability to develop a long-term view because all of that only comes with age.    

Experts - that is people with a wide range of experiences - are currently out of fashion and I can only speculate as to the reasons why. Nevertheless, corporations will eventually become desperate for experts – either when the deficits of so-called “talent” will have become too obvious or when the drain in knowledge has become too painful.

Where will they find the experts then? Now that’s a good question.

 

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