September 28, 2023

It’s so common. We’ve all heard it. We might have even said it ourselves. It means that whatever we’re directing this phrase at, it’s too full of white men who are old and…well, whatever ‘stale’ means! Lacking ideas? Not going to change? Obstructive? Whatever it is, it’s not nice.

How did it come to be so common and accepted to direct a phrase that is at best insulting, and at worst, hateful – and damaging - at a specific group of people? Prime Minister David Cameron’s July2014 cabinet reshuffle was widely reported by the British media as a clear-out of the ‘male pale and stale’.

Very recent statistics are a little difficult to pin down, but research by the Trades Union Council published in 2021 indicates that older workers who lose their jobs are twice as likely as younger workers to become long-term unemployed.

When Forbes invites us to meet ‘the 50 over 50 2023’ in what it calls ‘The Age of Disruption’, it’s interesting to note that these are women over 50. The men over 50? Well, maybe we’ve heard enough from them - perhaps they’re ‘pale, male and stale’.

Sex and race are protected characteristics in the UK’s Equality Act 2010. Applying a disparaging adjective to another description of someone’s sex or race might unsurprisingly result in a social media storm, accusations of hate speech, and even a prosecution. Describing people as ‘pale, male and stale’ could go the same way.

Anna Leigh, an Employment Associate with lawyers Wallace, wrote about the case of JWT Bayfield v Wunderman Thompson (UK) Ltd. An employment tribunal upheld claims of sex discrimination, harassment, victimisation, and unfair dismissal from two claimants who were heterosexual, middle-aged men who described their ethnic origins as White British.

In this case a presentation made by an advertising agency’s creative director contained a slide saying, “One thing we all agree on is that the reputation JWR once earnt: as being full of “White, British, Privileged… has to be obliterated”.

Shortly after the presentation, the agency commenced a redundancy procedure and the two claimants who complained about the presentation, were made redundant. Also, before the claimants’ selection for redundancy, the executive creative director had saved a senior female creative from redundancy for various reasons, including her sex.

Ironically, there is a suggestion that the origin of the ‘pale, male, stale’ descriptor originated in the advertising industry in the 1950’s in relation to a fictitious beer, “…Olde Frothing slosh, The Pale Stale Ale for the Pale Stale Male” – it rhymes.

Scholars of organisational psychology have certainly researched the perceptions, experiences, and actualities of older workers in the employment market and organisations.

With Halloween approaching, Kathleen Riach and Simon Kelly’s article published in 2015 seems apposite – ‘The need for fresh blood: understanding organizational age inequality through a vampiric lens’.

Riach and Kelly’s paper positions the vampire Nosferatu as a metaphor for organisations that seek fresh blood in pursuit of their immortality. Interesting to note that whilst Nosferatu and subsequent incarnations were older white men (the CEOs?) – Christopher Lee for example – the refreshing blood they sought and valued was largely from young women. Older men were, more often than not, the enemies of the vampire – poisonous and dispensable!

Riach and Kelly present a provocation that is more nuanced than organisational bias simply based on age. Likewise, Dian Bowman et al. in Australia present a more nuanced view of perceptions of older workers that goes beyond age and is more than ‘stale’ – ‘rusty, invisible, and threatening’ no less.

Perceptions are one thing – but they’re just that. In previous articles Brave Starts presented evidence for older workers being anything but stale – older workers start successful businesses and can accumulate performance enhancing intellectual and personal characteristics.

It’s evident that perceptions of older workers in the UK and elsewhere are skewed to the negative. It’s tough to change perceptions.  Disturbingly though, these negative connotations are expressed in a deliberate and harmful way towards older, white, men.

It’s not OK to refer to someone as pale, male, and stale. Just stop.


Riach, K. and Kelly, S. (2015). The need forfresh blood: Understanding organizational age inequality through a vampiriclens. Organization, 22(3), p.p. 287-305.

Bowman, D., McGann, M., Kimberley, H. and Biggs, S.(2017). ‘Rusty, invisible and threatening’: ageing, capital and employability. Work, employment and society, 31(3), p.p. 465-482.


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