Baby on board: UK's top bosses are becoming younger

Twice as many people are becoming chief executives in their forties as in 1997. Who says that youth is wasted on the young?

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 26 May 2011
According to a survey by Egon Zehnder International, at the end of 2010 41% of FTSE-100 chief execs were in their thirties or forties, 56% in their fifties and only 3% in their sixties or above. Which is a massive shift from 1997. Back then, when Tony Blair was going all Cool Britannia and hanging out with Blur and Oasis, only 20% of FTSE-100 bosses were in their forties, while 70% were in their fifties and 10% in their sixties. So our leaders are now even more likely than in Blair's day to be strapping on an electric guitar and rocking around the office.
 
This may seem counter-intuitive: the retirement age is being rolled back to reflect a population that either wants or has to work longer; add the economy's current troubles, which arguably suit seasoned hands with prior experience of riding out tough times, and you'd expect companies' hot-seats to be filled with silver-tops now more than ever. Not being populated by people who've only seen Bill & Ben the Flower Pot Men on re-runs.
 
According to the chaps at Egon Zehnder, such early risers comprise a tribe of precocious folk who could be known as 'career CEOs' - described by Jill Ader, head of CEO succession at EZI, as 'people who move around, almost following a strategic career plan with the aim of reaching the top'. The William Hagues of the business world, then.
 
And there's another factor that could be driving us towards younger bosses. These days businesses are under increasing pressure to deliver what customers want against a background of rapidly changing technology and fast-moving global competition. You could argue that a young CEO would be more likely to be comfortable with a diverse, flexible workforce, to set up m-commerce operations, and then to bang on about the business on Twitter without looking like they're trying too hard.
 
However this isn't part of a general trend within UK plc towards younger boards; in fact, our boardrooms are greyer than those CEO figures would suggest. While the average age of UK CEOs is 51, the average for non-executive directors is 59. Yet if we think our old boys may be over the hill, take a look around Europe. The average age of British board directors in general is 57, compared to 58 across most European countries and rising to 60 in Italy and Spain.
 
Aristotle wrote that youth is easily deceived, because it's quick to hope. Maybe hope's not such a bad thing to have in the current climate.

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