Talkin’ ’bout my Generation: Ageism in International Education


Sidney Rose & Michael Thompson

People try to put us d-down (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we got around (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I didn’t die before I got old (talkin’ ’bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

(With apologies to Pete Townsend).

The Who sang something like that in 1966 – when even we were just kids. It was a snipe at the “older” generation and their lack of understanding about what’s new and cool…. We reverse the lyric to take a snipe at the “younger” generation and their disregard of the wealth of experience and expertise we gained in those 55 years.

Yet, Mark Twain is said to have once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” 


But in international education it obviously does… we hear of many highly experienced and highly skilled senior educators being passed over by recruiters, agencies and schools because of their date of birth.


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


Ok Yes… really?… So?


Summary of our leadership careers from an Age perspective

As can be seen from our respective biographies at the end of this article, we are experienced heads of international schools and consultants. We have the first-hand experience of the relative ease of finding new and appropriate positions up to about the age of 55 years. From then on, securing a new position has become more difficult annually. Sid states:

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 very fortunate in that his current and previous positions valued experience but this is an anomaly to the trend.

These facts are stated to set the scene in which we outline the many and varied skills and attributes that a motivated and experienced person brings to the roles of international leadership and consultancy.


There is Ageism in international education … Why is that?

There’s a lot of talk about gender bias, racial bias and culture bias in society and at the workplace and each are important for many reasons. But perhaps one of the most hidden, biggest and most problematic types of bias we face is the bias of age: Recruiters often evaluate candidates based on age rather than experience – or expertise for that matter.

Is it just the recruiters or are they doing what they are instructed by the school owner or board?

In India, we had the experience of several teachers over the age of 60 who had considerably fewer days absent during the year than their younger colleagues but there was prejudice from the board, (locals with a forced retirement age of 58). We propose that these “golden oldies” had fewer distractions than their younger colleagues, paced themselves better and probably contributed more to the school’s development.

Some recruiters will argue that many countries do not give visas to older candidates but according to a recent survey released by The International Educator (TIE), which asked about hiring restrictions at international schools, over 65% of the 176 school heads interviewed reported that their school’s host country does not have age restrictions for issuing a work visa.


So, what’s the issue then?

We argue that organizations and schools can and should, employ older educators as leaders, teachers or consultants and give them meaningful, important jobs.

The myth propagated by the retirement industry is that people over the age of 65 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. Research however shows 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. In the wise words of Stephen Hawkins…: “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” It represents an opportunity to give value to others and the community, and it gives you something to do with your intellectual and physical energy.

Why would we want to retire if we love our work and can still contribute?

Many very experienced educators, school leaders and international education consultants and advisors find it more and more difficult to get work in their older years.  Virtually impossible actually. Why is that?

The average life expectancy in many developing countries is about 60 years and so it is difficult, perhaps even seen as biased and prejudiced if the country allows older internationals to work there.

If you are older, you are likely to be considered less capable, less able to adapt, or less willing to roll up your sleeves and do something new than your younger peers. They say we cannot use Technology but recent evidence during the current global pandemic has shown that the experienced leader has the ability to adapt and often lead schools when forced to work from a different time zone.


There is an assumption “oldies” are slowing down, are not flexible in their thinking and their health may deteriorate rapidly.

It can be expensive for medical insurance for older candidates and it might be assumed that there is a danger of a “lame duck” not fulfilling the contract?

Many international schools express concern over health issues for the older candidate and the associated costs of insuring them: “Health and health insurance are big issues. Disability coverage is not allowed over 60 and health insurance skyrockets,” reports one school. Another school in Africa, agrees, “I think that an older candidate must demonstrate physical fitness…I really feel that that is the main issue. A fit, active (coaching?) older candidate would have a good chance.

What could be worse than a much-loved, grandfather type leader, dying whilst working for the school?

But the facts are that we are living longer. The average longevity of human life increases each year. Life expectancy was around 50 at the beginning of the 20thCentury in the West. It is now 79 years – many of us are healthy and are in good shape and last much longer, and by the end of the century, it should reach 100!

International schools can appoint cheaper alternatives – and more often than not do.


What do we silver-haired “Golden Oldies”, have to offer?

Many of us are still fit and healthy. Many of us are fitter than our 45–50-year-old colleagues actually.

We, along with many other international education dinosaurs, have a wealth of experience, expertise and wisdom – gained from years in schools. We have the ability and expertise to train senior management and boards, based on acquired experience and expertise.

Adaptability: we have already “been there” and adapted to different circumstances, cultures and scenarios several times in our careers.  International schools vary dramatically, in location, size, student intake, staffing, curriculum, philosophy, and more. The best international teachers are willing and eager to adapt and embrace new circumstances and unexpected challenges.

In one specific area, age can benefit the school; the older educator will probably have a grown-up family that is not in need of subsidised tuition places in the school, annual home leave, larger accommodation, medical insurance etc. because they would not accompany him to the post. These savings, let alone the lack of “distractions” will allow the senior educator to focus most of his /her time and energy on the development of the school and more than offset the increased medical insurance of the educator.

With changes caused by the global pandemic, many older educators have displayed their ability to adapt and are abreast of recent changes in education. Many of us have been using technology since the 1980s and we are lifelong learners.

In order to be employable, we would suggest:

An annual review including a medical to confirm that we are still physically able to perform the tasks needed as head of school or consultant.  We always need a medical to get a visa for each country – and have always passed with flying colours.


What do we golden oldies have to offer in School Leadership/ Consultancy?

In addition to all the examples listed above, there should be no restriction on this as;

-health and fitness are not so important, the experienced educator will work within his/her capability and pace her /himself. Mick comments that “As a 26 years old newbie Head, I was constantly running around trying to fix everything myself, whereas the older, more empowering me as Head is far more efficient, effective and successful”.

– the only negative might be the perception of a: closed mind: but this would be eliminated by the consultant’s bid for the job. We are wise enough to know and understand our limitations.

-vast experience, network, knowledge of education, cultures etc.

– several “golden oldies” have shown their experience by leading schools as Interim Heads,  from afar during this pandemic; jobs that less experienced people could not do with the same level of competence.

There should really be no negatives as consultants are;

-paid by results, the short term usually. Sid’s school set-up projects have always been short-term to do the nitty-gritty work and use connections and network.

-none of the benefits that a head requires. Pension scheme, dependents etc.

It really is a win-win situation for the school and the consultant as the consultancy business is, realistically, “survival of the fittest’ as many of us 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!!!! Ageism is rife!

The International Educator, a leading resource for teachers looking for jobs at overseas schools, has recently mandated that schools indicate if there is an age requirement when filling out their job posting form on their website.


What we have to 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 78 and deemed fit to run a country with the world’s largest economy and 328 million people. Many other national leaders are ancient; they are expected to use their wisdom, not their athleticism!


You can’t have 40 years of experience in a 30-year-old body! Or even a 50-year-old.


Besides the value and competence older employees can bring to an educational organization, there is the issue of cognitive diversity. Few things of value have ever been accomplished by individuals working alone. The vast majority of our advancements — whether in science, business, arts, or sports, or education— are the result of coordinated human activity, – people working together as a cohesive unit. The best way to maximise 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 all” 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.

Career systems, pay systems, and recruitment and assessment systems are designed against hiring older people. Many companies believe older people are “overpaid” and can be “replaced with younger workers” who can do the job just as well. People like Mark Zuckerberg and others publicly say that “younger people are smarter.” We have an entire media and publishing industry that glorifies youth.

We must acknowledge that there is a limit for paying for an experience; the educational system which pays people more because they have done the job longer is not generally accepted by board members from industry. Oldies should be prepared to accept a salary similar to, for example, a 55-year-old.

Scientific evidence shows: For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise — the main predictors of job performance — keep increasing even beyond the age of 80. There is also much evidence to assume that traits like drive and curiosity are catalysts for new skill acquisition, even during later life. 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 biases, which is an illegal practice. Many of us — no matter our age — do not have enough money to retire (even if we wanted to). This said people of every age are motivated to work and 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 company becomes more innovative, engaging, – and profitable – and it benefits society at large.




What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to hear your feedback.





Sidney Rose was born in Cheshire, England and studied at Manchester University.  He began teaching in 1974 in a Community College in Cambridge, followed by a Head of Department position in Hertfordshire before he was contracted by the UK Ministry of Defense to the British Services School in Hong Kong in 1980. Forty years in international education later in many countries, cultures and settings (Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Sweden, Qatar, India, China and Vietnam and well as consultancies in many other countries) as a school leader and international education consultant and advisor, he finds himself “on-the-shelf” and considered past-the-sell-by date.


Michael Thompson was born in Nottingham, U.K. and studied at Leeds University. He started teaching in Oxfordshire and was head of a co-educational secondary boarding school in Zambia at the age of 26. He then moved on to a career in international education with leadership positions in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Michael has served as an accreditation team leader and was a member of the Education Steering Committee that produced the Government of India’s 5 Years Plan, 2012-2017. After establishing his consultancy, he returned to international school headship in Belgium and now Jamaica.


Image By Jean-Luc – originally posted to Flickr as The WHO, CC BY-SA 2.0

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