No regrets: Hiring older workers can pay off

If my mom were telling you her life story, she would begin with her dad suffering a stroke when she was very little and having to grow up with no money. Despite her humble beginnings, my mom's career has never been about money. I think my mom genuinely enjoys management, but it has taken a long time and a lot of hardship for her to be able to truly enjoy it.

During my mom's first job interview, in the late '60s, she was asked two questions:

1. Does your husband know you're getting a job?

2. Who will take care of your kids while you're at work?

My mom passed the interview with flying colors, and she became a Cobol programmer. I loved going to the office with her, especially when the computer system went down, because everyone at the office wanted to ask her a question.

My dad did not love that stuff. So after 14 years of working, my mom got pregnant and quit work in a last-ditch effort to save her marriage.

After the divorce, my mom had two small children and an awkward résumé. She had managed a very large team at a very large company years earlier, but the only job she could land was as the secretary for someone who was not qualified to be a secretary, let alone a secretary's boss.

Mom cried a lot. She said no one would call her about jobs because she was 45 years old. By this time, I was 21 and could tell her things that she often told me when I was frustrated: be patient. Once you get an interview, you'll get the job. And, sometimes you need to send out 100 résumés to get one response.

My mom taught herself C++ at night, after the kids were asleep. She learned Java at another job, where she took long lunches to go to doctors’ appointments with my younger brothers. At still another job– this one at a large credit card company– my mom took the bus to work every day so my brothers could drive the car to school.

All this, and she was still at the bottom of the programming ladder. She reported to a woman who was my age. If my mom were telling you this story, she'd say this woman was a smart, professional, and compassionate manager. But every time I tried to imagine reporting to someone 20 years younger than I am, I got sick and sweaty.

Recently, my mom got a promotion. Now she manages 11 people at the credit card company, and her new boss made it clear that my mom could move up fast. The first thing my mom did as a manager was use her two weeks of vacation to visit colleges with my brother. The second thing she did was grant a woman permission to work flexible hours so she could be at home with her kid.

It used to be that when I interviewed someone 20 years older than I was, I'd think, "What's wrong with this guy? Why is he stuck at my level at his age?"

But watching my mom navigate her career made me think again: I started hiring people older than I was. And while I've had only a few chances to do it, each has worked out well. I realized that I had a bigger problem with the age gap than the older people I was hiring. And in all cases, the person I hired had not only a very interesting story, but also a lot to teach me, and I felt lucky to have made the hire.
Penelope Trunk has worked for many businesses and even started a few, and now she's so busy with them that she doesn't have time to write her column. This good advice is from her archives.