Ageism or DNA’ism
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Title:Ageism or DNA’ism
Depending on who you speak with about the subject, youth is either a liability or an asset. Those who believe the latter may capitalize on the bounty of energy of a young professional by loading them with work that requires 12-14 hour days, massive amounts of caffeine, and an unquestioning devotion to the ‘end product’ however elusive the true reward of that may be. Those who are more cautious about the use of youthful minds in positions of leadership believe that experience, making mistakes, learning from mentors, and actual time, minutes on the clock, hours in the bullpen, years in the field, are what actually translate into capability. Neither viewpoint is true 100% of the time, of course.
This is a fact: there are several hugely successful companies in NYC real estate and construction management with a median employee age in the late 20s that are not only profitable but also disrupt market norms, create unique and high-profile products, and inform the narrative of this industry.
There is truth also in finding true stability by knowing that a PM overseeing the development of a $400 million project has done that very size of project multiple times over and has done so successfully. There are investors, banks, private equity groups, etc…that will require an experienced manager on their investment. However, there are owner rep firms, developers, real estate companies, and investment firms that have seen progress, profit, and shared success by the hands of the very youthful.
I’m 41. I am good at what I do. Was I better at this job when I was 27. Absolutely not. I was sloppy, I was less disciplined, and more reactionary. I had that terrible habit of sending 500-word emails bursting with emotion and passive aggressiveness. It took me, perhaps longer than most, until my early 30s to begin understanding that disciplined professionalism, steadiness, reliability, and calm pro-activity was going to be my secret to success. And while my peers in the business would pick up the phone and yell, or react to negativity with more negativity, I found solace in knowing that my approach was better not only for my business, but for my own health.
As a headhunter, I am faced constantly with what are often subtle hints of discrimination from both my candidates and my clients. Ageism does exist, but it exists both towards the young and the old.
I have seen highly capable young professionals kept ‘down’ despite the fact that they were clearly capable of so much more. I have seen older professionals dismissed because of the assumption that they were burnt out, or no longer motivated. But ageism exists most often in an attempt to maintain company culture.
Large traditional firms, particularly those in the ENR top 50 for instance, or companies that have been around for 50 or more years, tend to have executives in their 50s and 60s, and Assistant level professionals remain assistants for at least the first 5 years of their career. To promote a 28-year old to general super would upset the balance too much, and certainly to pay that person what other general supers get would not be in the cards, no matter how amazing a producer they were. Alternately, I’ve seen startups and newer companies hire only younger people because that company’s culture is more youthful, and because they feel they are more likely to see a 27-year old stay till midnight to get a project done, than a 45-year old.
I think that there is some truth to these stereotypes. This is a tough business, and once you’ve been in it for 30 years, it probably does start to grind on you. And again, if it were my $10 million going into the re-positioning of a multi-unit residential building in Soho, I would probably want someone my age running that job. There are exceptions, of course. There are plenty of young people who are simply not motivated, not engaged, not hard working and slow learners, and there are plenty of 50 and 60 year- olds who are deeply efficient, tremendous at their jobs and prepared to bend over backwards and live the job to see it successful.
Perhaps the focus should be more on the DNA of a person than their age. My father is in his early 70s and still a deeply engaged and appreciated professor at his school in Chicago. I know plenty of 50 and 60 year- olds who will never be complacent. Chances are those professionals were the same way when they were in 3rd grade. Young or old, if you are a ‘go getter’, someone who is not risk averse, someone who is forward thinking and proactive, you have a value in this market and you will have a value in a down market as well. Old or young, if you are in this just to collect a paycheck, to do the minimum, to reliably execute stated responsibilities but no more… – that’s fine too, just not for every employer. In the end, it is about finding the fit between the employer and the employee…. a science we headhunters know pretty well.