There’s no issue more sensitive than age.
But I’ve gotten many panicked “How old is too old to break in?” questions over the years.
Rather than skirting around this issue yet again, let’s jump in and see:
- Why the problem is not your age at all
- Why some experiences make you “older” than others
- Why banks like less experienced and capable recruits
- What to do if you are “too old”
The question “How old is too old to break into finance?” is a misguided one: in the US it’s not even legal to ask for your age when applying for jobs.
Internationally, this is not true and in some countries they will ask for your age, photos, and other information that would result in lawsuits in the US.
Still, most large banks are US-based and have standardized recruiting processes – so even if you apply in another region they’re not likely to ask explicitly how old you are.
Which means that most of the time, banks cannot measure your age precisely.
Or Can They?
Instead, they assess your “age” by looking at how much full-time work experience you’ve had after graduating from university.
Chances are that 10 years of full-time work experience makes you at least 30 – unless you were a child prodigy and graduated university at age 15, but then you wouldn’t be doing finance anyway.
And when banks see those 10 years of experience they mentally switch into “Too old / experienced to be an analyst” mode.
This has some interesting implications:
- If you’ve done military service, worked full-time, or done something else full-time for a few years in between high school and college, this won’t necessarily “count against you.”
So even if you’re slightly older than a 22-year old college graduate, banks won’t say “You’re 3 years too old for this job! Go away!”
If you’re a recent graduate, you’ll be placed in the same category as everyone else – unless you have a really unusual situation (you started a business when you were 18, ran it for 10 years, then sold it and started college at age 28).
- The more full-time work experience you have, the harder it gets to break in at the entry-level.
Yes, finance is the only industry where experience can actually count against you.
This applies to both Analysts and Associates – it’s tough to do something else for a few years after business school and then move into banking.
- Full-time experience after university makes you “older” than full-time experience during or before university.
So if you’re tempted to take a year off and become a ski bum or do volunteer work or anything else “full-time,” then taking a leave of absence from school and returning once you’re done is a better idea.
This isn’t logical in the slightest, but nothing in finance is.
Those were both under the assumption that you graduate around age 22-25.
And those guidelines are mostly correct, but it’s not because of your age itself – it’s because of how much experience you’ll have by then.
- Analyst-Level: Banks rarely hire anyone at the Analyst level with more than 2-3 years of full-time experience.
- Associate-Level: If you’ve done an MBA banks usually want 3-5 years of experience but not more than 10.
For Associates, it’s less about the years worked and more about the level you’ve attained.
Someone at the mid-level could potentially come in as an Associate, but a top executive will not take a pay cut and start correcting spelling mistakes in pitch books 100 hours a week.
Keep in mind that these are guidelines rather than absolute laws.
I’ve seen relatively senior people join banks as Associates, despite having more than 10 years of experience – if you find the right group and tell the right story it’s doable.
On the other hand, no, you will not be hired as an investment banking analyst if you are 50 and have 25 years of work experience.
You won’t even get hired as an Associate with that kind of background.
Yes, you can break in coming from very random backgrounds, but there’s a limit when it comes to years of work experience rather than the experience itself.
Why Do They Do It This Way?
If you’re in this category you might now be asking, “Why? Shouldn’t they want people with more experience who are better leaders and problem solvers?”
And I agree with you – it’s silly to be this rigid.
But banks don’t see it that way – they have 2 main concerns with more experienced candidates:
- You can’t prioritize work above all else and be on-call 24/7.
- You won’t do whatever senior bankers ask you to without questioning orders.
Concern#1 applies mostly to Associates.
Banks assume that if you’re older you might have a family and actual responsibilities outside work, reducing your willingness to stay at the office until midnight all the time.
Concern #2 applies to everyone – banks know that only less experienced hires are likely to follow instructions all the time without pushing back.
This is why it’s difficult to break in if you’ve started a company or done something off the beaten path that required a lot of independent thought – you might not be able to follow orders.
No, not everyone in the industry thinks like this.
But it is a numbers game, and bankers want to maximize their chances of finding workhorse Analysts and Associates – so they target people in very specific categories.
So What Do You Do If You’re “Too Old”?
It might be difficult to break into investment banking if you have too much experience, but there are other options:
- Pursue something like trading at a small prop trading firm where they care more about your results vs. your age or pedigree.
- If you’re too experienced to be an Analyst but not too old to be an Associate, a top business school is your best bet.
- If you’re already beyond business school or you’re in a very senior position at a company, think about Operating Partner-type roles at PE and VC firms.
And if you’re frustrated with the rigidity, find a less structured industry.
As bankers might say, “It is what it is.”