Grey Matters: Workplace Wisdom

Recently I have had conversations with three very different individuals who wanted to return to the workplace for a range of reasons: Maria had recently lost her husband and saw returning to work as a way of supplementing her income and giving structure to her new life as a widow. Bob had suffered badly in the recession and had become anxious about the future. Gordon was just going crazy in retirement.

The common factor was that they were all in their late 50s! The other common element was that they were all approaching the process with a great deal of humour “If anyone asks me where I see myself in 5 years time – I tell them your guess is as good as mine! Could be up or down! The irony was that the guy interviewing me was in his mid 40s, possibly 30 pounds overweight and looked like a heart attack waiting to happen! I was too polite to ask where he might be in 5 years!”

Changing reality
However it’s not just about 3 seniors looking for work. Many older job seekers have previously complained that although anti age discrimination legislation exists in most countries, the reality of age neutral hiring practises is somewhat different. But now there does seem to be a growing and strong business case for wisdom in the workplace, with emerging evidence from many sectors suggesting that they are increasingly looking to older workers. This demand has created a group of `new elders’ – healthy and with a wisdom and strategic know-how that is making them an asset to employers. In executive search, I have also seen a willingness to consider older candidates especially as part of succession planning while younger , less experienced employees are being groomed for senior roles.

Miles on tires
Many of today’s seniors are seasoned campaigners with massive experience of a large number of economic cycles, who are not intimidated by gliches and downturns and know what to do to get out of them. They have large networks from decades in business and have experience in managing and interacting with all generations. In some cultures age is venerated and many financial institutions find it reassuring that there is a voice of wisdom somewhere in the frame, so it’s not surprising that their image as wise sages implies trustworthiness to the cynical consumers who are suspicious of Gen Y capabilities and fecklessness.

Declining birth rates mean that employers are having to start looking for employees among older workers – and for the first time, some are doing so more enthusiastically than before as social changes make older workers fitter and more adaptable than ever before. In knowledge based economies they bring significant added value, especially if they are in touch with current trends, so “age neutral” recruiting is seeing an increased acceptance.

Knowledge based economies
Charlotte Thorne, author of a report by the Industrial Society on the significance of the grey economy says: “Society and pressure groups have traditionally seen ageing as a time of loss and vulnerability, ignoring changing demographics and labour market trends which are making the over 50s a force to be reckoned with. The current requirement is for knowledge. Businesses need people who can employ their experience and understanding, their networks and their strategic vision to add value to organisations. What businesses are really after is wisdom and that puts older workers in pole position.”

But not only are 50 – somethings stepping in for the council of elders role, but changing careers altogether. Edward, with a background in finance and business consulting, turns 60 this year, always a dab hand at DIY, but with never enough time to pursue his gift and passion, has taken a different type of employment completely, with a company fitting wooden decks.

” The owner was a bit dubious about my motives to start with, but the pleasure of working outside after 40 years of being chained to a desk is very satisfying.” he told me. Would he fancy running his own company I asked? ” Yes I would, but very much as a solopreneur – it’s the change of environment that is most important and leaving the computer in the office”

New outlook
Some recent career research for the 50 somethings suggests a whole new outlook

  • Half (46%) of 50-plus adults in the UK say they are not too old to find their dream job and start a new career.
  •  Almost half (45%) of adults have more life goals they want to achieve now than when they were 30.
  • One in five (19%) 50-plus workers are seriously contemplating a career change to fulfil a lifetime career ambition.
  • More than a quarter (26%) want more job satisfaction in their next career move.
  • For 77% that means doing something “worthwhile”.
  • 61% of 50-plus workers want the chance to learn new skills.
  • One in six (16%) retired 50-plus adults want to learn a new skill

It’s about value added
Seniors are not looking for a long-term career but in today’s age, with shorter periods spent in post at all levels, 3-5 years of committed added value would not be out of step with current market recruitment and employment trends in any demographic. The length of time employees spend in jobs in today’s workplace is decreasing and we are seeing a shift in focus from possible length of tenure, to the potential to add value via strong transferable skills.

Sea change
So instead of feeling daunted by the prospect of returning to the workplace at a later stage in life or remaining there longer, we are seeing a sea change albeit a slow one, with perhaps more opportunities than before. But also the older demographic, for whatever reason, is re-assessing, re-defining and overturning previous notions about a fixed retirement age and how long, as well as the direction, any career should run.

9 responses to “Grey Matters: Workplace Wisdom

  1. This makes so much sense to me. Of course maybe it’s because I am in that certain age group, but mostly because in spite of coming up to my sixty-second birthday, I really don’t feel that I’m ready for any kind of pasture unless I’m contemplating a picnic.

    Thank you for spotlighting this interesting subject, Dorothy. I agree there is great potential for mining the collective wisdom of intelligent, healthy and experienced people for any number of worthwhile purposes. After all, it’s not over
    ‘til it’s over.

    • Thanks Gwyn for your input. As one of my commentators mentioned the fact that someone is 45 is no indication that they will stay in a job or that they are even healthy. Hopefully this is the start of a new trend to give the older demographic choice.

  2. Peter Brockhoven

    Hi Dorothy – great word play in the headline! I laughed when I read your contributor’s comment about the interviewer looking like a heart attack waiting to happen. I had a similar experience recently.The hiring manager was completely stressed and looked on the verge of a breakdown Although nothing was voiced – I could tell my age was an issue.

    I’ve recently been hired by another company where the HR Director was 20 years younger than me! We all just have to keep trying!

    • Thanks Peter – health, potential longevity and tenure of position are no longer necessarily related to age. What I would hope for is the person best suited to the job would be offered the position, regardless of their age.

  3. Dorothy, I love your title for this post. In Grey Matter, I think of creativity. In Workplace Wisdom, I think of how experienced people can add to business growth.

    This is such a rich post on an important topic. As populations age around the world, those of us in career guidance professions will be confronted more and more with age-related issues.

    Myself and my search firm look for talent, no matter what the age of the person. We also look for “fit” in regard to what our clients require. The market realities are that age-related issues are swept under due to legalities and cultural standards, which can vary from country to country as you know.

    I think this bias will begin to shift due to demographics. With fewer younger people in the workforce, those with 30+ years experience have a wealth of knowledge and contacts as you write. Unquestionably, they can add-value to an enterprise, in at the least a consultative capacity.

    Age is a chronological number. People are living longer, healthier lives. There is no reason to retire at 65, if a person wants to work and can add value in my opinion.

    My Best, Mike

  4. Another punchy post, Dorothy , written with wit and wisdom!
    It makes us laugh and reflect.
    Many topics here to start a series on maybe?
    What I would like to stress is this: “They (older workers) have large networks from decades in business and have experience in managing and interacting with all generations.”
    I’ve read that companies are creating new Training Programs for managing across generations.
    L’Oréal, for which I coach executives, has created a training program called Valorize Generational Differences. “L’ Oréal Canada, with an age-diverse workforce made up of one third Boomers, one third Generation Xers, and one third Millennials, realized that they could be faced with “generation Shock” “. From the excellent book The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne Meister.
    In this book, I also learned that Boomers are not going to be the eldest !
    In 2020 we shall see 5 generations @work!
    Some of the “traditionalists” (all over 64 right now) will still be in the workforce.
    Picture that “a 82 years old still working side by side with multiple generations at PPG Industries” (again from Jeanne Meister’s book, p46), quoted from the Pew Research Center.
    Dream…or nightmare?
    It raises the issue of health insurances, pensions, willingness for some to continue working by choice or having to do it forced in order to survive…
    Thank you Dorothy for inviting us to dive deep into this crucial change in demographics that is happening now.
    We are all concerned, without exception, whatever our age, our gender, our culture!

    • Marion – thanks for such an informative response. Times are changing and long held ideas about the age of workforces is currently under review, as the economic crisis hits pension schemes and delays young people entering the workplace. There are also some who simply want to remain econocmically and professionally active. Thanks for highlighting Jeanne Meister’s book. That is an excellent read.

  5. Pingback: Career opportunities for seniors | Dorothy Dalton

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