Age knows no barriers for bankers

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Meridian's figures indicate that age now plays little role in determining employability in investment banking and that, in some cases, those 40 and over find it considerably easier to find a new position than those in their 20s.

The findings fly in the face of established dogma. The model career path has traditionally been to enter the industry at 21, quietly accept subordination until 30, to head a team between 30 and 35, to head a regional team between 35 and 40 and, for the lucky few, to head a regional franchise from 40 onwards.

Those who don't make the final hurdles leave. Figures have tended to confirm this. Reuters' analyst profiles, for example, show numbers declining dramatically from 46 onwards.

Why, then, have Meridian's clients in their 40s found it nearly twice as easy to find a position as 20-year-olds? Meridian's managing director, Michael Moran, claims to have the answer. 'Demand for knowledge workers has put a premium on experience and there is a genuine shortage of the right people. For the first time it's possible to be in your 40s and in demand. As long as you've invested in yourself and ensure that you have the right skillset, you will be highly sought after.'

Former Meridian client Peter Damon confirms Moran's instinct. Having lost his job in the IT department of an investment bank at the age of 43, he had no problem finding a new job as emerging technology manager for a fund management house. Damon actively took the initiative in keeping his skills current and says that this was crucial to his success.

According to the head of HR at a Scandinavian investment bank, older workers are often better at staying employable. 'They are much more aware of the need to keep their skills up to date. By comparison, young people are complacent,' she says.

It's also easier than ever before for more experienced staff to keep their skills up to date. PAs are less frequently used and senior staff now send e-mails and interface with technology directly. Open-plan offices are preventing the isolation of executives and ensuring they remain in closer contact with developments on the floor. But keeping astride of skills developments is not the only thing driving demand for yesterday's spring chickens. In 10 years' time, more than a quarter of the workforce will be over 50.

And although dot-com mania may be waning, the declining pool of 20 and 30-year-olds is proving less willing to bite the long hours biscuit proffered by banks than in the past. Andrew Pullman, head of HR for global markets at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, says that banks can make better use of older, more experienced people for whom long hours are less of a turn-off.

Experience is also a factor. Intellectual ability may peak in the 20s, but the kind of emotional intelligence that is derived from experience keeps growing. 'Are we saying that the City of London is so clever that it doesn't need experienced individuals?' asks one head of HR.

But while experience is important, it is more important in some situations than others. The preference for younger employees means that a high proportion of staff have been in banking for less than five years. There is unanimous agreement that when things go awry, older staff become crucial.

Steven Sidebottom, head of HR at Commerzbank, says: 'If you have a whole generation of managers that have come up through a boom and the market changes, then there won't be anyone that can manage a downturn. The people who panicked in 1998 were those that it had not happened to before. Older people are the corporate memory.'

Older staff are also important as role models to the young. Lucia Thompson, coach at the Metamorphosis Group, says that younger bankers have suffered from the absence of older employees. 'The young can be brash and it makes the culture very cutting and greedy. Older people with a broader outlook and the empathy to see further than short-term financial gain are able to make an important contribution in terms of mentoring younger staff in a deeper sense of purpose. It is a tremendous loss that they cannot be kept on,' she says.

Keeping older workers on makes sense in other ways. Investment banking is unrivalled in the potential it offers for early promotion, but when it comes to retention, this may not work in banks' favour. Career consultant Challenger Gray & Christmas monitored chief executives in all industries and found that those under 50 are more likely to resign. Older executives are not only more experienced, but more loyal.

But in investment banking, older staff also bring more direct business benefits - as has been apprehended by Goldman Sachs. Contrary to its own tradition of internal promotion, Goldman has been hoovering up experienced seniors.

At 54, Roberto Mendoza was coaxed out of retirement from JP Morgan, others have come from Lazard Frères, Salomon Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch. According to Andrew Lowenthal, global head of the financial services practice at executive search firm Egon Zehnder, demand for the Mendozas of this world is being driven by changes to the investment banking product market. 'Five or 10 years ago, banks would argue that they were product superior, but now it's all about client credibility. People in their 40s or 50s will have relationships stretching back 10 or 20 years, not two years.'

Life for the legions of 21-year-old graduates and 27-year-old MBAs entering banking may well, therefore, begin at 40. But only providing that skills are updated and contacts forged. Maintaining lifelong employability is hard work and is not something that today's 40-year-olds envy their younger colleagues.

'I feel sorry for investment bank staff in their 20s,' says Damon.

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