Opinion| When age is not a liability

James Michael Lafferty
8 Min Read

Society in general does not like to face up to painful realities. But this does not mean they do not exist. And one such example is age discrimination against older workers. 

It is real. And it is all over. Rampant in fact. 

I have no less than 50 friends and acquaintances, all in their 50s and early 60s, with impressive experiences and CVs, yet who cannot find steady work. Perhaps a part of the issue is, some may have unrealistic salary expectations. But the vast majority? It is age discrimination. 

I recall poignantly the first time I sniffed this issue regarding myself. I was approaching 50 years old, and in a job interview. For the first time, I was asked a series of questions I had never been asked in 25 years of interviews: “How is your health?” “When are you thinking of retiring?” “Do you think you have the energy for such a role?” This was a clear signal age was becoming a concern for prospective employers. 

Whether we like it or not, age does become a consideration for employers. We can cry and scream about it, we can litigate in the courts against it, or we can face the reality: Aging does impact us all, and some more than others. 

Some people are figuratively, “50 going on 75”, and have aged biologically well past their chronological age. They are out of shape. Wheezing going up one flight of stairs. Breaking into spontaneous sweats. Taking prescription drug after prescription drug. They are not in good shape, and asking questions about their fitness to take on roles which require high energy and stress tolerance are logical questions any employer is going to ask. 

Having knowledge and skills to do a job is only part of the story. An individual also needs the strength and endurance to leverage those skills and experiences to succeed in the role.

The solution is to indeed fight age discrimination, but not in the courts. It is to fight it ourselves, and to transform our own wellness. Anyone can truly turn back the clock. We can be “50 going on 75” and take ourselves out of the game, or we can be “50 going on 35” and put ourselves right in the thick of things. It is simply all about making a choice for personal wellness. 

Let me give some real-life examples from my company, Fine Hygienic Holding, which is at the core a wellness company, with a strong orientation towards employee wellness. We have all kinds of wellness offerings for our people. We have on-site fitness centres open 24/7, fitness classes, health promotions and competitions to have fun and improve, employee mental health programmes, and counselling. It is a long list. 

But beyond this, we believe we must lead from the top, through leading by example and acting as role models for our organisation. And we have multiple examples of senior leaders in FHH putting age concerns in the rubbish bin. People who are choosing personal wellness and becoming literally “50 going on 35”. 

It starts with our Chairperson, Ghassan Nuqul, who is seven-days-per-week in the gym, an avid outdoor enthusiast, and accomplished equestrian.

Ghassan looks and feels half his age of 57. He leads from the top. Here is a man I have never seen work less than 10 hours per day, and whom I have never seen take a sick day, who is passionate and energetic whether it is at 7:00 am or 10:00 pm. It is not about luck. It is living a life of discipline, making a choice to take care of his health. He is frankly 57 going on 35. Or perhaps even better! 

But it does not stop with our Chairperson. My Chief of Supply Chain, Jan Robben, is another outstanding role model. Jan leads manufacturing sites across four countries and over 2,000 people. He needs energy and stamina, and he knows it. So, at 64 years old, he has transformed himself into a 40-year-old or younger.

Embarking on a daily fitness session and healthy diet, Jan has catapulted himself into being most probably the healthiest member of his entire 2,000-person team! He has boundless energy, and his health has never been better. We do not worry about Jan turning 65 years old. We simply hope he will sign on for more years well beyond 65!

And finally, I should mention briefly myself. I am also 57, but judge I am going on 40. I exercise faithfully six days per week. I have run over 30 full marathons, and often compete in powerlifting competitions. I even won the Philippines National Championship in Bench Press in 2017, beating out entire teams of collegiate 20-year-olds on the way to the title. I have not taken a full sick day in years and working a 10-hour day is a “light” day. It is all about choice. 

A decade ago, when I was CEO of Coca-Cola Nigeria, we had an ongoing problem of poor maintenance of the production lines, leading to frequent shutdowns. We had to change a number of our maintenance engineers. After all, if you cannot consistently execute good preventative maintenance programmes, then you probably should not expect to last as a maintenance engineer. 

All of us in this world are, in a sense, maintenance engineers. We are responsible for one machine, the body we are all given. It is our job to take care of this machine, to ensure it is maintained and running smoothly. That it has minimal shutdowns and leads a long and productive life. That’s our job as a maintenance engineer. 

If we cannot do that, then we should not expect to stay in the game against others who do a better job. And that’s the simple reality. You want to stay gainfully employed past 50? Get your personal wellness in order. Turn back the clock. You can do it!

James Michael Lafferty: CEO of Fine Hygienic Holding, a global leader in wellness and hygiene solutions. Lafferty is also an Olympic Track and Field Coach, an accomplished journalist, and a college professor.

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