When I was a lad, I was taught to be respectful of my elders. No calling the neighbors by their first names for me. The same was true of the teachers at school; except for the nuns whom I often called "Stir," a diminutive of the word "Sister." The reason was simple. These people had more life experience and knowledge than I, and had earned a modicum of respect. I was a youngster, still learning and putting a down payment on my claim for later respect.
Nowadays, respect for those with experience, knowledge, and ability is nearly extinct, nowhere more so than our places of business. I'm concerned with the way in which industry jettisons those above 50, and replaces these steady hands with those still learning the ropes. In extreme cases, old hands like Bob Lutz and Allan Gilmour are brought back to reassure Wall Street, lend their experience, and reverse the downward slide. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Below the top executive level, the culling process continues, often with disastrous results.
For example, the tale is told of a major OEM revamping its rear-drive lineup after a mid-1980s early retirement binge. Looking to replace its then-current automatic transmission with a new design, the company discovered it had lost the experienced, knowledgeable, older engineers who knew how to do the job. The greenhorns who were put in charge underestimated the torque capacity, which led to failures in the field when it was mated to the company's new 32-valve V8. To this day, the transmission isn't the equal of its competitors.
Then there are those who have lost their jobs to downsizing. They have the experience, and–unfortunately for them–the salary to go with it. Often a perfect fit for an organization and ready to hit the ground running, they are stopped by internal restrictions on salaries. Take, for example, a friend who was fired from a large leasing company because he made more on straight commission than his new bosses. After the settlement, he spoke to some OEMs about a job in their leasing groups. There he was told–off line, of course–that they'd love to have him on board, he was perfect for the job, but there was no way he'd make it through "the system" with his salary requirement or at his age. Think about it. Had this 50-year-old died of a heart attack, cancer, or in a traffic accident, people would be crying about the loss of such a "young" man. But in the halls of an OEM, he was too old–and too costly.
I'm not going to get caught up in a discussion about legality because, for every regulation, there are 12 equally legal ways around it. And while the candidate for employment suffers, the company suffers more because it sacrifices experience and knowledge for financial expediency. Quality suffers for long after, a phenomenon we are witnessing at many automakers today. There is, however, a simple solution.
First, hire the candidate who best fills the need, regardless of age. As for the outside pressures to socially engineer the workplace, ignore them. They aren't the problem. Most of the youth/diversity/what-have-you drives have been internally generated, not externally mandated. Second, encourage the transfer of knowledge and experience through formal and informal mechanisms, making sure they aren't used as a tool to replace the experienced hands before their time. This will help make transitions orderly. Third, tell Wall Street that profits and performance come from the knowledge and experience of those who can deliver the new product, not from diversity and downsizing. Fourth, stick to it. Nothing silences critics like success.