Project Management Institute

More than a number?

Peer to Peer Are age and competence mutually exclusive when it comes to the abilities of a project professional? David Espina, PMP, and Lisa Hogben weigh in.

Does the age of a project professional matter?

Lisa Hogben: Unfortunately, the age of a project professional matters to many people. A lot of older professionals tend to believe that age is an indicator of experience. I’ve found that people make assumptions about colleagues and managers based on their age. For example, younger project professionals are considered keen and full of ideas, but lacking in knowledge and experience. On the other hand, older professionals are perceived by younger professionals to be experienced and knowledgeable, but unable or unwilling to grasp new ideas and ways of working.

David Espina, PMP: The age of a project professional is irrelevant. Age indicates nothing more than the passage of time. There is nothing about the passage of time that influences the mastery of skill and ability. One's ability to perform a task well requires maturation of one's knowledge of the task, skill of performing the task and experience performing the task. All three must advance if we are to see improvement in performance. Experience requires time, during which the practitioner is getting older, which is why many find it intuitive that age matters. But I counter that notion with the argument that the time one needs to capture experience is both relative and extremely variable.

Ms. Hogben: I agree that age should not be relevant and that the passage of time affects us differently. I wonder though—because age is considered relevant and important to many people, is that why it renders it relevant to us? That doesn't mean we have to believe it to be important, but perhaps we should at least be aware that if it matters to others, it might affect the project manager's interactions with us, such as their propensity to trust and their willingness to delegate responsibility.

David Espina, PMP, is a service area manager at IBM Global Business Services, Washington, DC, USA.
Lisa Hogben is a project manager at London Underground, a transportation company in London, England.


Age indicates nothing more than the passage of time. There is nothing about the passage of time that influences the mastery of skill and ability.

—David Espina, PMP, IBM Global Business Services, Washington, DC, USA

Young project managers…have not had the opportunity to gain as many years of service, but this does not make them less competent—perhaps just less knowledgeable about certain things.

—Lisa Hogben, London Underground, London, England

Is an older project manager more competent than a younger project manager?

Mr. Espina: Age has nothing to do with competence. I recently worked on a task within a very large project that had approximately 60 resources and was worth near US$20 million in contract cost value. It was led by a senior project manager who had far more years behind him than in front of him. It was poor management from the beginning: very disorganized, ill-defined roles, sloppy scheduling and poor customer satisfaction.

This person was replaced by a far junior project manager, who turned the task around in a few weeks. To be sure, there were other interventions at play to encourage the task's recovery. However, it was quite clear that the new project manager brought in a degree of performance not seen from the original project manager, who happened to be older.

Ms. Hogben: There are many capable, competent young project managers, and many older ones, too. Equally, there are plenty of incompetent older and younger project managers. Many people believe that with age comes experience and with experience comes competence. Younger project managers have worked for less time and therefore have not had the opportunity to gain as many years of service, but this does not make them any less competent—perhaps just less knowledgeable about certain things.

A manager of mine once told me, “You can have 20 years’ experience of doing the same thing over and over again, or five years doing a range of different things.” I would argue that the latter project manager would and should be considered more competent than the former.

Are age and experience the same thing?

Mr. Espina: The fact that many people believe age is an indicator of experience is a bias. It is a source of ageism and results in discrimination.


Ms. Hogben: I think the connotations that come with age in the workplace are related to societal norms and values. The parent-child relationship, for example, sees the older parent holding authority over the younger child. This could be considered a natural hierarchy easily translated into the workplace.

Mr. Espina: Age is measured on a ratio scale—it is equal for all of us. One year for me is the same as one year for everyone else. Experience, however, is not equal, and the results of getting experience vary dramatically. One person can mature in capability with experience gained over one year, where it would take 10 for another. In the pilot community, for example, it is understood that 100 hours of flight time are not equal from pilot to pilot. Flying one hour in a clear blue sky around your base airport 100 times is much different than 100 hours in severe instrument meteorological conditions flying cross country, despite the fact that both pilots aged equally over those 100 hours.

Ms. Hogben: The question is whether lots of years of experience is equal to good experience, and this is not always the case.

Age is a number. Experience is an intricate combination of knowledge, memories, learning, thoughts, opinions and encounters. Age implies life experience, but not necessarily work experience. PM

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