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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Musing on Ageism in International Schools
By Michael Thompson and Sidney Rose
Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

We’re a couple of “old gits” or “golden oldies” that have been through-the-mill of international education in many countries and cultures, speaking up for many similarly experienced and skilled educators who because of their age find it more than difficult to secure meaningful work in today’s youth-orientated society.

“International schools need great educators and leaders who are skilled, experienced and have the right personality and attitude” … TES

 Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.” Mark Twain  

But in international schools we wonder if in fact it apparently does – very much so. We so often hear of highly experienced and highly skilled senior educators being passed over by recruiters, agencies, and schools simply because of their date of birth.

 A summary of our leadership careers from an age perspective:

We raise this issue in part because of our own career paths.  We have first-hand experience of the relative ease of finding new and appropriate positions up to about the age of about fifty-five. From then on, securing a new position has annually become more and more difficult. Sid says:

"I am often head-hunted based on my profile and then the prospective employer backs out when my age is revealed. It's happened at least a dozen times, now."

Mick has been more fortunate that recruiters for his current and previous positions valued experience, but the challenge of finding schools with those values grew with each year.

We share these brief experiences to set the scene in which we outline the many and varied skills and attributes that a motivated and experienced person can bring to the roles in international education leadership and consultancy.

So, what are we advocating?

Organizations and schools can and should employ older candidate educators as teachers, leaders, or consultants.

Ageism in international education…Why?

There’s a lot of focus on gender bias, racial bias, and culture bias in society and the workplace and each are very important for many reasons.  A far- less highlighted bias is that of age.

What does this bias look like? 

  • A candidate may experience with it with the recruiter, who focuses on age rather than experience or expertise as the process moves along.  But is it just the recruiters or are they doing what they are instructed by the school owner or board?  In India, for example, we had several teachers over the age of sixty who had considerably fewer days absent during the year than their younger colleagues - yet were subject to a the views of some board members who favored the local practice of forced retirement at age 58.
  • Some recruiters will argue that many countries do not give visas to older candidates. According to a survey released by The International Educator (TIE), which asked about hiring restrictions at international schools, over sixty-five percent of the one hundred and seventy-six school heads interviewed reported that their school’s host country does not have age restrictions for issuing a work visa.
  • And then there is the myth propagated by the retirement industry that people over the age of sixty-five should retire. Despite the billions of dollars spent convincing us that our “golden years” should involve more travel, golf, sitting around the pool, or pottering around the garden, a growing body of research suggests that people who stop working and retire may suffer from depression, heart attacks, and a general malaise of not having as much purpose in their lives. Many people, particularly those who have enjoyed long, and meaningful careers like to work; It represents an opportunity to give value to others and the community.
  • Some may assume that people who are older may be less capable, less able to adapt, or less willing to roll up their sleeves and do something new than their younger peers. However, recent evidence (McKinsey & Company) during the current global pandemic has shown that the experienced leader frequently does have the ability to adapt and often lead schools in extraordinary circumstances, such as when forced to work from a different time zone. Many older educators have embraced technology (since the mid-80s!) and shown that we really are lifelong learners.
  • There may be an assumption that “oldies” are slowing down, are not flexible in their thinking, and their health may deteriorate rapidly.  Many international schools express concern over health issues for the older candidate and the associated costs of insuring them. A school in Africa, stated, “I think that an older candidate must demonstrate physical fitness. A fit, active, older candidate would have a good chance.”   But the facts are that people are living longer. The average longevity of human life increases each year. Life expectancy was around fifty at the beginning of the 20th Century in the West. It is now seventy-nine years.
  • Another argument is that international schools can appoint cheaper alternatives, and often, do. But are they as capable?
  • Career systems, pay systems, and recruitment and assessment systems are often designed against hiring older people. Companies may believe older people are “overpaid” and can be “replaced with younger workers.” We have an entire media and publishing industry that seems to glorify youth. Have international schools bought into this thinking?

So, what do we “Golden Oldies,” have to offer in leadership / Consultancy and Teaching?

  • Many of us are still fit and healthy.   We, along with many other international education ‘dinosaurs,’ have a wealth of experience, expertise, and wisdom. We have the ability and expertise to train senior management and boards.  To reassure employers, we would suggest an annual review including a full medical to confirm that we are still physically able to perform the tasks needed as head of school or consultant.
  • Hyper-fitness, however, is not so important.  The experienced educator will work within her/his capability and pace her/himself. Mick comments, "As a new twenty-six-year-old Head, I was constantly running around trying to fix everything myself, whereas the older, more empowering me is far more efficient, effective, and successful."
  • Another plus is that we have already “been there” and adapted to different circumstances, cultures, and scenarios multiple times in our careers.  International schools vary dramatically in location, size, student intake, staffing, curriculum, philosophy, and more. The best international leaders and teachers are willing and eager to adapt and embrace new circumstances and unexpected challenges.
  • An older educator will probably not need to spend most of his/her time and energy on the development of the school and could do more that would more offset the increased medical insurance of the educator.
  • Many “golden oldies” have shown their experience by leading schools as Interim Heads, from afar during this pandemic.  Schools get to benefit from decades of experience that perhaps less experienced people could not do with the same level of competence.
  • Regarding consultants, there are no negatives as they are:
  • Paid by results, usually short term. Sid’s school set-up projects have often been short-term to do the nitty-gritty foundation work and use connections and networks.
  • Need none of the benefits that a full-time Head requires pension scheme, dependents, etc.

It is a win-win situation for the school and the consultant as the consultancy business is, realistically, “survival of the fittest” as oldies have turned to consultancy as a way of giving back to the educational world that we have loved.

The “only” problem is they don’t want what we offer!

What to do?

Schools should be clear about when there are age restrictions. For example, The International Educator (TIE), a leading resource for teachers looking for jobs at overseas schools, requires that schools indicate if there is an age requirement when filling out their job posting form on their website[BB2] , so that candidates are at least aware before applying.

What we also must do is point out the benefits, to the schools, of employing capable people who have a lifetime of experience - The most important job in the U.S. – and perhaps the world goes, often, to people who would generally be considered “too old” to be productive in most employment.  Joe Biden is seventy-eight and deemed fit to run a country with the world’s largest economy and three hundred and twenty-eight million people. Many other national leaders are ancient; they are expected to use their wisdom not their athleticism! You can’t have forty years of experience in a thirty-year-old body! Or even a fifty-year-old body!

A good strategy for maximizing team output is to increase cognitive diversity which is significantly more likely to occur if you can get people of different ages, experiences, and expertise working together. We, older heads, have "been there and done it" before, so don’t need credit for leading. Our aim is to develop the skills of the middle managers to be able to take over.

We must acknowledge that there is a limit to paying for experience; the educational system which pays people more because they have done the job longer is not generally accepted by board members from industry and we must be prepared to be flexible.

Knowledge and expertise, the main predictors of job performance, keep increasing even beyond the age of eighty. When it comes to learning new things, there is no age limit, and the more intellectually engaged people remain as they age, the more they will contribute.

We should encourage schools and recruiters not to discriminate by age – or in any other way. This includes tackling implicit bias. People of every age who are motivated to work should have a right to do so. If employers can create an inclusive, fair, and meaningful experience for older employees, as well as younger ones, the school becomes more innovative, engaging, and successful - and benefits society at large.


Sidney Rose has spent forty years in international education as a school leader and consultant including starting up several  new schools in many countries and cultures. He now finds himself “on-the-shelf” and considered “past-the-sell-by” date.

LinkedIn: Sidney Rose FRSA

Michael Thompson has spent his career in international education, mainly as a school leader, consultant, and accreditation team leader. He is currently Head of an international school in Jamaica.

LinkedIn: Michael Thompson

Twitter: mickthompson49

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