The Age Old question

Are organizations evolving quickly enough to support the reality of an ageing population?

Came across three articles recently — 29 year old becomes CFO of Kraft; 55 year old woman starts a new business and becomes a millionaire; 98 year old completes his Masters Degree

It’s refreshing and makes us say out loud ‘age is just a number’. But is it though? We say it but do we really live by that. These are just handful of examples. Although brilliant in their own right in pushing the society one small step at a time, we need a bigger change. Age, and what we can do to address it, is not discussed enough.

The natural order of a workplace is for top management senior employees to be older and younger employees usually start at a junior level to move up the ladder over the years. This is only logical and the argument here isn’t necessarily to turn this around completely. However, most organizations have fewer senior level roles as compared to juniors, which effectively means, only some of the ageing population can continue to thrive in the same workplace in the long run.

One also cannot ignore the fact that worldwide we will have an increasingly ageing population. With an average life expectancy of 81 in UK, the usual 60 year retirement age will no longer be realistic. It will mean people are out of their working life for 30 years — it puts tremendous pressure on the government, the healthcare system and is definitely not healthy for the individuals themselves. Remaining engaged and in a work environment keeps mental faculties sharp.

Innocent questions about how long one has been in the company , an innocuous comment about one’s retirement plans and all too often, guessing people’s age behind their back is the reality of today’s workplace. And this almost always has nothing to do with the capability or performance of the person. I once had a very respectable media owner confess that he desperately hopes his manager wouldn’t find out his exact age as that would put his job at risk. That surely shouldn't be the case after years of service to the company.

I get that organizations need change, they need the enthusiasm of younger workforce and they need new ideas but this doesn't always have to come from the young. We forget what experience and wisdom can bring to the table unless it comes with a title of President or Chief in it. I find very often that a young workplace is celebrated and is touted as a selling point for many companies, especially start-ups. Representation of every age group is almost never spoken about in the same vein.

There is a need for change in attitude. Then there is need to introduce new thinking. Many people, in the course of their careers, may come to the realization that they would love to try a different industry or a different kind of a job altogether. The only option available to such people is for them to go away and start their own business or start from scratch at entry level. Some are brave and some aren’t. But it shouldn’t be down to courage at all. In this day and age, each individual organization, the recruiters and managers within them should take a step to change the culture and help provide an environment which allows for more lateral career choices. Why are we so stuck about recruiting from within the same industry, same profile or same specialism, even when the job in question is far from technical? Transferable skills are viewed with a very narrow lens and we aren’t really bringing in new thinking if all we do is continue to recruit from a tiny circle. Also, when employers generally allow for time and resource in training junior members, why is it so hard to make such an allowance for older employees? It will be great to see more opportunities being made available for mid-senior level employees to make more frequent jumps, try new roles and start at different levels. For employees who are 60+, it will be great to see the workplace evolve and cater to their needs — part time options, flexible working and true efforts to integrate will go a long way.

Lastly, one cannot undermine the attitude change that needs to happen within the older employees as well. With technology, younger workforce will definitely have an edge and it is down to the ‘old world’ to shake off their ‘I know it better’ attitude and get stuck in, learn and experiment with new roles, even if that means, having to be taught by someone half their age. It is a give and take!