Why The Apprentice is missing a trick by excluding older workers
There have been more candidates called Alex than candidates aged over 40 since the BBC first launched The Apprentice in 2005.
In this blog, our Chief Executive, Dr Carole Easton OBE, examines why The Apprentice hasn't worked with any older businesspeople, and what the show could gain from having more contestants over the age of 50.
Only five over-40s have ever been granted the chance to become Lord Sugar’s next business partner, out of over 250 candidates, while nobody over 50 has ever been on the show. The real disgrace in The Apprentice isn’t the candidates’ performance, but the exclusion of older people from Lord Sugar’s hunt for “ambitious entrepreneurs”.
It makes little sense to exclude older people from Lord Sugar’s search as the evidence shows that older workers have the entrepreneurial spark he is looking for. Almost one in five 50-64 year olds are self-employed, compared to one in twenty16-24 year olds. And not only are there more older workers setting up their own businesses, but they are more likely to succeed when they do so. The entrepreneurs who set up rapidly growing businesses that achieve real success tend to be older, rather than younger, an in-depth US study found. Another study found that 50-year-old entrepreneurs are twice as likely to set up firms that achieve high growth rates than entrepreneurs in their 30s.
This series, Lord Sugar is looking for a business partner who will offer serious value in the face of rising costs and have the commercial insight and business sense to ride out economic uncertainty. And so it makes even less sense that the current series of The Apprentice continues to favour youthfulness. Having more older workers makes firms overall more productive, as the management and general work experience of over 50s increases the productivity of younger workers. And with their decades of industry knowledge, older workers certainly have the business sense to succeed in challenging economic conditions.
Prejudice against over 50s on The Apprentice is not confined to the show’s selection process - younger candidates have displayed shocking examples of ageist stereotyping and narratives. In episode nine of the current series, Team Apex developed a male skincare product targeted at over 50s. They defined this audience as having a “silver fox kind of vibe” and “thinking of themselves first and spending their time playing hobbies such as golf”.
They also supported ageist narratives of later life inevitably involving physical decline, by assuming older men want to “tighten their skin” and “combat those wrinkles”. Clearly, the exclusion of older candidates from the show means a loss of both industry experience and accurate appraisals of one of the nation’s fastest-growing population groups - those in their 50s and beyond.
We are currently facing a jobs market defined by both labour and skills shortages, and the mistaken notion that older workers are not dynamic or entrepreneurial
Both on The Apprentice and more widely, an apprentice is typically imagined as a younger person learning a skilled trade from an older employer. But as we have longer and more varied careers – changing roles, companies and sectors throughout our working life - this idea needs rethinking. We need to expand our concept of an ‘apprentice’ to include anyone starting a new path in the world of work, regardless of their age or experience. Jeremy Hunt’s proposal to introduce apprenticeships for over 50s looking to retrain or get back into work is a welcome one and should be a spark to rethink how the business world envisages this role.
To be fair, there are representations of older businesspeople on The Apprentice. They are Lord Sugar and his terrifyingly unimpressed advisors who like to point out younger colleagues’ incompetence and tear up their business plans. But is this the image we want to see of a multigenerational workforce? Why should the only older workers in The Apprentice have to occupy senior roles and not feel they have anything to learn from their younger colleagues?
Now there is a tiny possibility that over the past 18 years no one over the age of 50 in the UK has seen the show and thought “I could do that” or “I have a business idea that Lord Sugar would love.” But experience tells us that the reason we’ve never seen a contestant aged over 50 is because the ageist TV industry prefers younger faces and has a tendency to sideline older people on screen.
My sense is that TV producers have shown the same prejudice to older workers as many employers. They wrongfully assume that because this is a fast-paced show, with long, exhausting working hours, looking for ambitious, entrepreneurial candidates with get-go and energy then it must be a case of out with the old and in with the young. Our work at Ageing Better has taught us that there is certain language that older applicants feel excluded by, and which some employers may use to signal they are excluding older workers, such as innovative’, ‘technologically savvy’ and ‘recent graduate’. In reality it is the competency and quality of the candidate that should be the only criteria, not their age.
It is time for The Apprentice to embrace the potential that older workers have to be budding apprentices. The media plays a pivotal role in how we think about getting older. And we are currently facing a jobs market defined by both labour and skills shortages, and the mistaken notion that older workers are not dynamic or entrepreneurial. The Apprentice could help employers and the general public see that older people, just as much as younger workers, could be the next big success in the business world.