Is age just a number or can it also be your expiry date in the industry? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Matt Smith investigates.
When Channel 10 fired respected newsreader Tracey Spicer shortly after her return from maternity leave in 2006, one of the motivations behind the axing was alleged to be age. Fellow newsreader Jacinta Tynan, who today works alongside Spicer at Sky News, says: “The formula for news presenting has always been an old bloke as the anchor with a young woman co-hosting. With every grey hair, the old man would get a raise in salary while his co-host would be replaced with someone younger every year.”
Ten denied they sacked Spicer because of her age and although she was not replaced by a younger model, the network settled the case out of court for $250,000.
While Tynan has seen a definite shift in recent years and points to Sky News’ current line-up of news readers, she says there is still a way to go. “When I began in the industry, I didn’t expect to last past the age of 35,” she says.
“I’ve seen a lot of change over the years, so that trend is shifting. But for women presenters it is still a token presence – you shouldn’t be able to easily list all of them.”
Across industries, Australia is struggling to adjust to an ageing workforce. According to figures from the treasury intergenerational report Australia to 2050, in the next 40 years the number of Australians over the age of 65 is expected to more than double. Within the next six years, 85 per cent of the labour market growth will come from workers over the age of 45.
Acceptance that older workers still bring value can’t come fast enough for some, particularly in the advertising industry. Tony Simms has felt this more than most. Simms, formerly chief director at Cheil, Samsung’s in-house ad agency, found himself unemployed with more than 20 years’ experience. In late 2011 he launched a campaign to find employment spruiking his talents with a sandwich board in Martin Place. While it gave him attention and exposure, the only job offers that followed were for non-paid positions.
Simms says: “I went to an interview with a top company, and I had all the right references and ticked all the right boxes. I was everything they wanted, but they decided they needed someone who could ‘grow into the role’. There are 101 buzzwords to turn you down for the job.”
Simms says that while agencies are favouring ‘young’ and ‘funky’ ideas, it’s often age and experience that clients prefer. He says a client once told him: “If I have another 25-year-old come in and try and tell me how to run my marketing budget, I will throw them from the building.”
While he has spent the past year consulting to the marketing team of Fuji Xerox as well as a number of agencies, he says there are too many other ad industry professionals in his demographic unable to secure work.
“Unfortunately, my situation is all too common. I’ve encountered hundreds of people, so many with great experience, who find themselves ostracised,” says Simms. “They’re told experience is respected, and yet they go in to be interviewed by someone with less experience than themselves.”
Former executive chairman at Ogilvy Group Australia, Tom Moult, says the desirability of youth is simply a reality of the business.
“Advertising is an energetic service industry, and it will always be a young person’s industry,” Moult says. “A lot of young people are cheaper and suit your budget. It’s an exciting environment for them, but it’s one you can grow out of.” Last year Moult departed Ogilvy after less than two years as it reinvented itself to compete ‘in a highly digital marketplace’. He has since established his own consultancy, Walker Moult, and says despite adland jobs suiting younger workers, there are plenty of clients who appreciate an ad man with some grey hair.
“Advertising isn’t as ageist as many think. You just need enthusiasm and a willingness to understand young people,” says Moult, who admits that at 54, he is sometimes the oldest person in the room. “There are opportunities for mature people and they’re growing. I just hope my patience will last as long as my career has to.”
AGE AS AN ASSET
But while advertising agencies chase the next hot young creative, there are other pockets of the communications industry where opportunities improve with age. Radio, notably talkback, is one such sector.
Robyn Williams has hosted the Science Show on ABC Radio National since 1975 and has been with the network for more than 40 years. There are many in the industry in a similar position, and he points to 2CH presenter Bob Rogers as “still sounding fantastic” on the air at the age of 86. “You have to say yes to opportunities and be ready for change at any time,” says Williams. “In television you feel that your program is going to go out of your control and be outsourced. Radio is a bit more ongoing, and you have more control.”
Williams says the Radio National team is generally older and is seen as a career progression from fellow ABC station and youth broadcaster Triple J.
That doesn’t necessarily mean youth is a disadvantage. At just 23 Ben Naparstek was appointed editor of politics and culture bible The Monthly. Four years later he took the reins of Fairfax’s premier weekly magazine, Good Weekend.
Naparstek has experienced a great deal of scrutiny from the industry due to his youth. “It’s only people outside Fairfax who seem to care about me being 27,” he says. “For me at work, and I think for my colleagues too, it’s a non-issue.”
“I don’t reckon [the scrutiny is] a bad thing. I do think if you’re also arrogant and therefore unable to learn from the experience of others then being young can be a disadvantage, but I’m fortunate to work with lots of really experienced and talented people and I try to make the absolute most of their expertise.”
And after a number of senior reporters departed Fairfax in 2012, Naparstek is no longer the only 20-something in a position of power at the publisher.
“With resources much thinner on the ground, journalists at Fairfax are really championed and promoted based on their skills and performance rather than their reputations or seniority,” says Naparstek. “It seems to me a truly level playing field.”
That said, young people in high-ranking positions are still thin on the ground, particularly in the media space – so much so that Mat Baxter, CEO of media agency UM, is still referred to as ‘the young guy’ at the age of 34.
“There’s a big difference between age and experience, and the two don’t always relate to each other,” Baxter says. “What matters is what you cram into your years in the industry. You can be in there for years and not get much experience.”
“How engaged you are, how much you learn, how much you educate yourself – that’s what matters.”
Described as ‘the young precocious guy’ in the earlier years of his career, Baxter says you rarely read articles highlighting the age of older CEOs. His point was reinforced by the recent appointment of Katie Rigg-Smith as CEO of media agency Mindshare where her youth was a key feature of the appointment story.
“It’s seen as more socially acceptable to point out someone’s age if they’re young and successful. I like to think we hire on talent not age, and I of all people should do this. I’m not an ageist, I’m a ‘talentist’ if you want to call me that.” Baxter believes the reality is that the younger worker is celebrated or desired more than the older, especially in Australia.
“Australia doesn’t respect age as much as some of the other developed markets around the world,” Baxter says. “In the United States it’s a really important and celebrated factor in business culture.”
“Steve Jobs was no spring chicken and no-one ever told him to hang up the black skivvy.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.