RICHARD BRANSON: Hiring older workers is the right thing to do

Here's a interview with Richard Branson last year, in which he gives his views on the value of older workers. Given the association of the Virgin brand with youthful vigor, not to mention Branson's penchant for adrenaline stoked adventures, I think his views on this subject are worth repeating here. Apparently he plans to work until he is 90...

Q: What is your approach to hiring older workers? If you were looking for a position, how would you look to overcome the ageism barrier?

A: Thank you for your question! It is an appropriate time for me to address the issues of age and the workforce, as I turned 60 in July.

This year I ran my first marathon in just over five hours and tried to set a record as the oldest person to kite-surf across the English Channel (high winds forced me to abandon the attempt) - both tasks usually associated with younger people. And I'm not alone. These days, people are living much longer, active lives - so retiring at a young age is no longer necessary. If a person looks after himself with regular exercise and a good diet, there is no reason why he should not keep going well past 60.

I plan to work until I feel I'm no longer making a real contribution to Virgin. I see a good 30 years of work ahead. It's true that at 60 there are some tasks that suit me better than others, but I see few real limitations in my current role.

Richard Branson
In the UK, the government has recommended extending the age of retirement to 67, and many countries in the rest of Europe are contemplating similar legislation. It is not just governments, but company boards around the world that are facing the challenges of serving ageing populations.

So while it is true that some employers may have negative preconceptions about hiring older workers, they are only doing themselves a disservice. Entrepreneurs and managers who hope to succeed are taking a close look at older applicants.

There are real advantages to hiring these employees. Studies have shown that older workers may lower time-keeping and absentee issues ; they also tend to have higher levels of commitment to their jobs and loyalty to their employers, which reduces staff churn and helps reduce recruitment costs.

And there is a strong business case for companies to diversify the age groups they employ. In all our ventures, we put a real emphasis on offering great service, and to succeed, we must truly understand our customers and see our service through their eyes. As our and others' customer bases get older, managers will need staffers who themselves reflect the changing demographics.

This is a challenge for Virgin since we have tended to be quite young at heart. The average age in the group is still fairly young, with more than a third of staff under the age of 35 and only around 3% over 55.

This is largely determined by a few factors, including the sectors we operate in and the newcomer status of some of the businesses. For example, Virgin Active, our health club chain, attracts a younger workforce due to the physical nature of the work. As the challengers to established brands, our airlines - Virgin America, Atlantic and Blue - have tended to be magnets for younger cabin crews and ground staff, which affects the group's average age.

Even our finance business has younger staff - again, people interested in the company's challenger status and in new product development. But as we prepare for the future, this is a factor that clearly needs to change.

How? Well, many businesses retire their experienced staffers, both to cut costs when times get tough and as a matter of course. But those employers can lose a lot of key skills when workers with a wealth of knowledge and experience leave.

One answer is to become more accommodating in work arrangements. Offering part- time jobs, job shares, flexi-time and full-time jobs with longer holidays may attract older workers. This would enable everyone - not just older employees - to strike a better work-life balance and allow companies to retain their skills and experience.

I hope that with this approach, our group will continue to maintain a very open policy of recruitment and that ageism will not be an issue. Hiring older workers isn't just the right thing to do; it also makes good business sense.

Branson blogs on branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at richardbranson.

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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for posting here Brian. I'd venture that ageism is the last socially acceptable 'ism'... And since everyone of us is getting older at the same speed, it's an issue for everyone to take up.