Katie Byrne: 'Gaybo, Marian and Larry Gogan proved the value of experience in an era of rampant ageism'

It’s hard to think about the deaths of Larry Gogan, Marian Finucane and Gay Byrne without considering what this generation of broadcaster represented.

They were unique Irish voices, known for their courage, compassion and unerring professionalism. Moreover, they had something that we’re seeing less and less of in Irish workplaces – the wisdom of age.

Finucane, who was 69 when she died, once said she worked in “the most ageist industry in the country”. In the same interview, she refused to give her age on the grounds of age stereotyping.

Nonetheless, she worked past the mandatory RTÉ retirement age of 65 – as a contractor – and, according to her husband John Clarke, only started talking about retirement last month.

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Gogan retired from RTÉ 2FM last year, but he wasn’t ready to leave radio behind. The veteran broadcaster was still presenting RTÉ Gold when he died on Tuesday at the age of 85.

Byrne continued working too. He presented his last Late Late Show in 1999, but went on to present the popular Meaning Of Life series and a jazz show on Lyric FM.

RTÉ has never had a major shortage of older presenters – it could even be argued that they are more age-diverse than other stations – but still, in an increasingly youth-centric society, it’s worth considering how many older voices we have left now that we’ve lost three of the very best in quick succession. Diversity has become a buzzword in workplaces in recent years, but age discrimination isn’t always at the top of the agenda.

There are countless studies bearing this out but, frankly, we only need to open our eyes to what’s going on around us. Those working for ‘young and dynamic’ tech companies will struggle to remember the last time a fifty-something employee was hired.

Those working in customer-facing roles will have seen older employees phased out for younger (and prettier) candidates. And those who wade through stacks of CVs for a living will have at some point been confronted by their own inherent age bias. Likewise, we all know someone who was forced out of employment at the age of 65.

Take Mary Kennedy, who was forced to resign from Nationwide last September. She made it clear that she didn’t want to leave the show, but there was no wrangling with RTÉ’s compulsory staff retirement age of 65.

Eamon Dunphy claims that the late Bill O’Herlihy didn’t go willingly either. In an interview with the Sunday Business Post, he alleged that his old friend had been forced out for being too old.

At the heart of the issue is our fetishisation of youth. Companies believe younger candidates are more agile and dynamic, less resistant to change and, let’s be honest here, cheaper.

Some broadcasters, meanwhile, believe that ‘fresh faces’ (read: younger faces) can help them connect with new audiences. They want next-generation thinking, and they assume only the younger generation can deliver it. The trouble with this attitude, of course, is that it ultimately disregards the experience and wisdom of older people, just as it fails to cultivate the experts of the future.

When a disproportionate onus is placed on the fresh ideas and perspectives that young innovators bring, we forget about the need for knowledge-holders and the life lessons that older people can share with us.

Gay Byrne jokingly described himself as the “elder lemon of Irish broadcasting”, but he really was a respected elder in Irish society. We trusted him to take the pulse of the nation and we heeded his advice – even after he retired.

Marian Finucane was remembered as the “voice of reason”, which is an epitaph that only the long of tenure get. Decades of experience taught her how to read between the lines, listen out for the unsaid and sniff the wind.

Larry Gogan was a true authority on music – a man who lived through more cultural moments and musical movements than anyone else in the industry.

They helped pave the way for the many Irish people who expect to work past the age of 65. We need to hear the voices of the over-65s on our airwaves – let’s hope our national broadcaster keeps championing them.

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