Ageism in Design

Futures Rambling # 71

By Laurie Aznavoorian

We have changed Prime Ministers outside of an election – again. It makes Australian’s appear indecisive at the very least, and by comparison makes the partisan bickering of the US congress look like model lawmaking. In the media coverage of the events that led to, and followed the change, it was astounding to see many aspects of the Gilliard’s government record ignored, and her gender the focus of post mortems.

You might find it surprising that despite our pastime of having a go at Julia Gillard for her hair and outfit choices, gender does not top the list of our favourite form of discrimination in this country. It’s not race either, as many would suspect, but age! One would need to be dumb, deaf and blind to not know Australians are no strangers to discrimination. We can compete with the best of the world’s judgement passers at cutting people off at the knees for what they are or aren’t.

This is precisely why Susan Ryan, the Australian age discrimination commissioner, says we need to ‘crackdown’ on ageism because it is the biggest obstacle facing seniors who want to work in the country. If we succeed we could inject $33 billion into the Australian economy by adding 750,000 more people to workforce. This would address skills shortages and other problems we have with the national economy.

Australia is not alone, in McKinsey’s discussion paper Help wanted: The future of work in advanced economies the authors note 40 million workers across advanced economies are unemployed, but many of those countries claim to be unable to find the workers they need. Most could fill their skill gap by employing the high percentage of workers who are 55 to 64 years of age.

It is a large pool to draw from. In 1990, about 10% of the global workforce was over 55; by 2010 that share had risen to 14% and has reached 18% in some advanced economies. By 2030, the proportion of older workers in the global labour force is expected to reach 22%. In places like Japan the percentage of older workers is as high as 70%.

The paper identified five trends influencing employment levels and shaping how work is done. One is the growing pool of untapped talent, to be specific older workers. Another source of labour not tapped is females; while the participation rate has grown and in most advanced economies is equal, female participation still lags that of males in some countries.  They propose this is symptomatic of structural changes in the nature of work, a shift many institutions and policies have not kept up with.

We’re quite familiar with the struggles organisations have in understanding the impact of such changes on office design, but how much attention do we pay to the impact of this on the sustainability of our own profession? Unlike the practice of architecture, where many of the ‘greats’ didn’t even land their first real commissions till they were in their 50’s (Louis Kahn) and often practice well in to old age (Oscar Niemeyer just died at the age of 104 and designed the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in 2002 when he was 94, he designed the Serpentine Gallery at age 96).  We tend to focus on youth.

To be fair, in both architecture and interiors, like many professional industries, our ability to make money is rooted in a model based on many Indians and few chiefs. Still our industry has exacerbated issues around ageism by responding to a challenging economy by sacking older workers and replacing them with juniors who cost less.  This is not a new trick and it hasn’t served organisations that employ it any better now than it has in the past.

Not only are they failing to benefit from the experience and insight of older workers, some have tarnished their reputations from continually undercutting fees. Often the result is little or no time on projects for employees with experience to grace the design or documentation process and when it comes to design that can be disastrous.

Two additional realities plague our industry and make age discrimination particularly challenging, the typical employee in a design firm is not only female, but young to boot. The careers of most women, and some men, tend to not follow the typical lineal career and life path. Woman start and stop their career and go through stages at different times, they may only just be hitting their stride by the time they hit 50.

When design companies discard older designers they don’t just die and go away; they still need to earn a living to keep them in wrinkle cream and black outfits, and being older many career choices are now unsuitable: ice skater, pole dancer! With their skill base and sound relationships, many find employment by crossing the line to work with the clients they once served. The reversal of roles provides a unique perspective on the state of the design industry.

I know several who have done this and while they may be a bit jaded, only remembering  the good part of the ‘good old days’ and forgetting the rest, it is interesting how many comment on what they perceive as a downturn in quality across the industry.  They say this is manifested in superficial design solutions that lack substance and connection to their needs, unbuildable details and shocking documentation packages.

Their hypothesis, which may be self-serving, is that this is due to a lack of experience on project. By example, one knew the project director knew his stuff and hired him because he was highly skilled and more than capable of executing the project. When it came to delivery, he lacked a skilled back up team and was personally unable to allocate the time required to do what he knew needed to be done, the project suffered. More than one person has confided they had no choice but to return drawings back to the designer to be redone.

You could argue design oversight is still being done, just undertaken by experienced practitioners on the ‘client side’ of the project equation. In other cases external consultants like my friend Craig play this role. He is engaged in half hour intervals at a very high fee to review details for constructability and represents several different organisations in difficult meetings that require a person with greater experience representing them.

Some say throw young talented designers in the deep end to sink or swim, cut loose the old farts who piddle about, checking work, clipping wings and cramping style. They argue that is the way they learned. My memories were different, I recall arriving to work in the morning to find a role of trace over what I was working on the night before. The boss would leave sketches and notes, generally illegible, from midnight strolls he took through the studio.  With everything in a computer today, this is no longer possible; the flaw with this logic is that it is a different time.

We have access to abundant data which had led to the tendency to subjectively draw immediate connections between words, images and ideas. This is particularly prevalent with younger designers who apply a social media process of observing and interpreting information quickly: liking, retweeting, sharing or pining to the design process. It leaves no room for the process of design which is one that solves problems and requires contemplation.

No doubt our industry could benefit from a few adjustments to the design and documentation process, to better align it to changing economic conditions, while maintaining the guts of what is good about our trade. It is true, there are plenty of superfluous steps that we could abandon or improve with new technologies available to us; thinking isn’t one of them.

This issue isn’t limited to design, most industries suffer from the same compression of time and budget, but not all industries compound it with an underlying attitude about age, or as impacted by  gender. For instance technology is similarly bedazzled by youth too, but dominated by men who do not bear children so perhaps are in a better place. They too have learned from their mistakes during the tech boom and bust cycles and are not as cavalier as they once were.

Reviewing the success stories from entrepreneurs and investors that made it big in that industry, there are a few lessons they learned that now, later in life, they wished they had known earlier. Perhaps we can learn from them?

  • Tim Westergren, the founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Pandora, said if he could offer his younger self one piece of advice, it would be to realise from an early age that it’s far more haunting to live with the regret of having not followed your instincts–even when those instincts required a diversion from the beaten path–than to have followed your gut and failed.
  • Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia– –said the advice he would share with the younger generation is to be strategic and thoughtful with expenses at an early age so that you can afford to pursue your passions.
  • Bill Ready, the CEO of Braintree–the mobile payments platform for online and mobile commerce says to surround yourself with great people and be fearless in pursuit of game-changing ideas.
  • Alexander Ljung, the cofounder and CEO of SoundCloud–the popular audio platform shared the importance of learning the power of simplicity in today’s complex world. He references a T. S. Eliot quote as a guide. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”


22 Perspektive 2025—Fachkräfte für Deutschland (Perspective 2025—Skilled Workers for Germany), Federal Labor Agency, Nuremberg, 2010.

APP; Urgent Action Needed on Ageism: Ryan; The Australian, May 17, 2013

Cutcher, Leanne; Women are Still Being Held Back at Work by Ageism and Sexism; The Australian; March 23, 2013

Heick, Terry; How 21st Century Thinking Is Just Different;; May 10, 2012

Nasri, Grace; Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They’d Known Then;; May 9, 2013

National Seniors Australia Productive Ageing Centre; The Elephant in the Room, age Discrimination in Employment; April 2011


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