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Picking the Late Bloomers

In the U.S., the older members of “Gen Y” are already headed into their mid-20s. As they forge new careers and create new markets, they are rightly getting a lot of attention from companies. But before this new generation comes into its own, companies should look a little harder at another group, one that gets much less attention and doesn’t even have a proper name.
We could term them “late bloomers.” They aren’t so much a generation as they are a type. They tend to be a little older (let’s say, mid-30s on up), experienced, smart and willing to try on new roles. They’re not employees who have been on—or at least stayed on—the fast track. But a certain enthusiasm and even ambition makes them attractive candidates to take on important jobs or projects.

There’s evidence to suggest this is a talent pool worth delving into. For one thing, they’re likely to be educationally ambitious, going out of their way to gain new skills. The last three decades have brought a surge in the number of U.S. college students who are 35 and older. The National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education, 2003) reports that the total enrollment in degree-granting institutions for people 35 and older was 2,749,000 in the year 2000 and is projected to reach nearly three million by 2013. That’s up from just 832,000 in 1970.

But even if they’re not educationally ambitious, late bloomers are likely to be particularly committed to the next chapter in their professional lives, having had enough time and experience to mesh their career goals with their life goals. Late bloomers may emerge from a variety of personal histories:

  • The parent taking an “on-ramp” into the full-time workforce. Some late bloomers are likely parents—especially mothers who had left the workforce or reduced their work commitments for a time to better handle family obligations. Now they’re getting back into the workforce even while trying to find the kind of job with which they feel emotionally connected and committed.
  • The career changer. Some people change careers to passionately pursue interests they’ve put on the back burner, sometimes for years. Now they want to make headway quickly in new careers, partly to make up for what they perceive as lost time.
  • The plateaued. Especially in the very large baby boomer generation, there are talented people who have wound up “plateaued” beneath older colleagues in management. They may have been quite successful in whatever role they’ve filled, but have never quite achieved their professional goals.
  • The midlife stock-taker. These people have gotten to the point in their lives when they realize they need to either push harder and more wisely for their professional goals or give up on those goals entirely.

Late bloomers can bring considerable passion, insight and experience to important jobs, once given an opportunity. Management would make a mistake, however, in believing that these employees don’t need counseling and direction just because they’re no longer young recruits. Like any employee in a new job, they require guidance, training and encouragement.

Finding and developing late bloomers is likely to become more important to employers in coming years for several reasons. First, of course, is the skills shortage widely predicted to emerge as a result of slowdowns in labor force growth and the approaching retirement of many older baby boomers.

Second, companies need to do more to resist age discrimination, especially in the hiring process. Too often, recruiters seem to strongly favor youth over experience. In fact, a recent research paper by Prof. Joanna N. Lahey (2005) of Texas A&M University has found that job applicants 50 or older are considerably less likely to be hired than their younger counterparts. She writes, “A younger worker in [ Florida or Massachusetts] is more than 40 percent more likely to be called back for an interview than an older worker, where older is defined as age 50 or older.”

Third, older employees are able to stay in the workforce longer than they once were. People are living not only longer lives but also healthier lives. Today’s 70-year-olds, for example, have about the same health and mental function as the 65-year-olds of 30 years ago. And surveys increasingly find that many boomers say they want to stay in the workforce past traditional retirement ages (Lahey, 2005).

So harnessing the untapped potential among somewhat older employee cohorts—as well as among the up-and-coming younger workers—can make considerable business sense. The trick, as always, is in being able to spot the best talent.

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