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Few green shoots for ‘grey hairs’ in Asia-Pac financial services

He wasn't too old for the job.

He wasn't too old for the job.

News that UBS is looking to hire senior bankers – the so-called ‘grey hairs’ – in Europe will be welcomed by finance professionals who feel discriminated against because of their age, but there are no signs that this will be emulated in Asia any time soon, despite chronic skills shortages in the region.

UBS’ investment banking arm, under the leadership of Andrea Orcel, is aiming to bolster its ranks with more than two dozen senior advisory bankers, or “grey-hairs”, over the next couple of years.

This is a welcome reversal – however small – of a widespread problem in financial services. UK finance workers in the City, for example, believe that ageism is now more prevalent than sexism, and a recent survey of accounting professionals revealed that half of those polled said it was harder to get a new job or promoted once they reach the age of 40. 

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Most recruiters in Asia Pacific say there is no sign in the region of employers widening the recruiting net to consider older candidates, despite significant shortages of bankers and other finance people in areas like wealth management and private banking, risk and compliance, among others. Christine Wright, operations director of Hays in Asia, recently commented on the “ongoing and profound skills shortages” in the region.

The one exception appears to be in Malaysia, where Sammie Sam, an associate director at Robert Walters Malaysia, says they are seeing some signs of older bankers being rehired or contracts of ‘mature professionals’ being renewed. She says that typically such professionals are seasoned bankers who are familiar with the banks’ systems, processes and infrastructure.

But these appointments are not envisaged as long-term hires. “They are hired (for one or two years) to head up the existing teams and divisions until the banks identify the right successors,” Sam says.

The legislative framework in the region to protect older professionals is weak. In Hong Kong, there is still no age discrimination legislation in place, and apparently no plans to enact any. In Singapore, laws have been passed about age discrimination, but they are more targeted at including retirees back into the workforce. Furthermore, they only apply to citizens and permanent residents, and don’t cover foreign professionals working on employment passes.

One recruiter, who asked not to be named, says he has not seen any signs of employers in Singapore giving more consideration to candidates over 50. “That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. However, overall, there is a preference towards younger people even for more senior roles.”

He says that people who possess 20 years’ experience in an area may offer a bank the opportunity to benefit from invaluable experience, but “many banks do show a preference towards more ‘dynamic’ types of people.”

In the investment banking sector in particular, he says, the average age of bankers seems to becoming younger rather than older.

“Even for director level roles there is definitely a preference towards someone who is still developing themselves and their careers rather than someone who has decades of experience.”

He says that his counterparts in Hong Kong and China have the same view.

Although Australia has advanced age discrimination legislation and a dedicated commissioner to champion the inclusion of older professionals, little has changed in financial services, say recruiters.

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