STOP! Enough of the urban myth about 50+ generation

7 August 2023 By Victoria Tomlinson

STOP! Enough of the urban myth about 50+ generation image

I could not believe it. Last week BBC journalist Amol Rajan launched the latest of the BBC’s Rethink series – this one on Rethink Work. And right from the start, here we went again. In his introduction he talked about

“Ageing populations needing care”
and then
“For an older generation who have opted out of the labour market, life is just too short to work”

NO, NO, NO. Lazy journalism is attributing soaring numbers of economically inactive people down to long term sick and …. lazy 50 year-olds who can’t be bothered to work.

Yes, long term sick people are contributing, with knock on from Covid still affecting some. But 50 year-olds would like nothing more than to work. Camilla Cavendish was one journalist continuing the urban myth but then had to change her mind. She wrote in the FT ‘Tempting back older workers means ditching business as usual’, saying thousands of 50+ contacted her to explain why they had left work – and it was not boredom, laziness or wanting to relax.

Camilla went on to report, “Having enjoyed most of my jobs, I was dismayed by the outpouring of disillusionment. Readers with years of hard graft in all sorts of industries felt downtrodden by bureaucracy, meaningless training and frothy “initiatives” imposed by managers who moved on, in companies which showed no loyalty after years of service. ‘Even though I’m writing programming code better than any time in my life’, wrote one, ‘if I returned to IT I’d be eaten alive, not by the youngsters (they’re a joy), but by aggressively competitive middle managers, who are driven to distraction to find productivity gains’. Are these the wails of curmudgeons failing to move with the times? That’s certainly how senior workers are often portrayed. Perhaps we do become less tolerant as we age, with our irritating comments about how “that didn’t work last time we tried it”. But maybe the really out-of-date people are managers who think 50 is “old” when it’s barely more than halfway through some lives.’

Yes, Camilla, you are the one to get this right.

And then in the whole Rethink Work and looking at Jobs of the Future, Amol Rajan failed entirely to look at the opportunities of an ageing population. They are only considered as decrepid souls needing care. Not a generation of people aged 50 to 90 (and possibly more) who are active, mentally alert, huge experience to offer and at the top of their game. Actually, Amol is going to discover all this in ten to fifteen years!

So what should this series have covered?

1. Work needs redesigning for the 50+ generation

The programme should have looked at why work is not working for this generation. It would have been great if one of their voice notes had been from a man aged 62, say, talking about being at the top of his game and wanting to work. How he was treated when he did work – patronised, his skills not used, no investment in his training, no opportunities to progress any more. What it felt like to leave work and apply for hundreds of jobs and not get a single interview or even reply.

And then talk to a few of the forward thinking employers who understand what this generation needs – to some extent – and are trying to change things. Corporates like Unilever, Sainsburys, Lloyds Bank, Fullers Brewery are creating flexible workplaces so experienced employees can combine caring responsibilities (for parents and grandchildren) with work.

Phoenix has included age as one of their pillars of diversity and measure employee engagement by age.

There is an irony in making age a diversity issue – it is the one thing that affects every employee. We hope that every single employee will get older and live to retirement age and beyond?!

2. The opportunities of an unretired generation

We have been running ‘proof of concept’ projects to show that the unretired generation has huge value to society.

With support from Leeds City Council, experienced people mentored tech and other entrepreneurs. Read more about this here. In Covid we launched a platform so hundreds of mentors could help others – not just entrepreneurs, but business people, charities and others.

This is what Victoria Speight of Laboc Communications said about the help to their business …

3. Changing the culture of work

By 2030, half the workforce will be aged over 50. We will have five, six, seven generations in most workforces.

The culture of work is going to have to change to be intergenerational and for the generations to learn to value and respect each other.

It was interesting when we did our first ever mentoring session. The younger entrepreneurs said, “I didn’t expect the older people to be interested in our businesses, but they really were and were so helpful.” And the older generations? They said, “I didn’t think the entrepreneurs would be interested in what I had to say, but they were great and really listened and wanted to hear my views.”

The buzz from bringing these generations was palpable. We need multi-generational teams at work. We all need each other – no one generation is better than the other. The most successful businesses will be those that manage this well. Just as gender diversity brings breadth of thinking, so generational diversity does also.

4. The 50+ generation will sue employers for ageism

Like Camilla Cavendish, when I write about the misreporting of the 50+ generation, I get thousands of responses, including so many men and women who have suffered tangible ageism. This is not a generation that makes a fuss. But I know it won’t be long before one or two will sue their employers.

I don’t think anyone wants to create a new litigious market, but this generation deserves better. Unless employers start treating these employees equally, they will take action one day.

The ridiculous thing is – they can be part of the solution to the skills crisis. So many want to keep working – not necessarily full time but very happy to do projects or work three or four days a week. That way they can also combine their caring responsibilities.

And it’s no good employers saying they don’t have tech skills – whose fault is that? They haven’t invested in them. We saw in Covid that even 80 or 90 year-olds can use technology when there is a compelling need – to stay in touch with family, order online and the rest.

Believe in this generation, they will repay it in spades.

5. Pools of unretired talent

Corporates will increasingly stay in touch with and get alumni involved back in the business. Axa has ‘a Bench’ of alumni that employees can call on as consultants. Shell apparently is creating a pool of former engineers to offer technical expertise on projects.

EY is one of the leaders in this space. Liz Gray, EMEIA partner transition leader, helps partners as they retire and helps them to find roles and use their expertise with charities, businesses and others. She said, “Our programme has changed partners’ outlook from less than 40% engaging with businesses after leaving EY to over 90%. Each one is contributing to our economy and enhancing their personal worth”.

Please, if anyone else is looking at the future of work, can we have a proper balanced look at what is happening with older generations. Yes we are an ageing population but with this there are considerable opportunities. Let’s be optimistic about this generation.

And for goodness sake. Do not continue the myth that this generation ‘can’t be bothered to work’. They would love to – let’s find ways to do that. And that means an overhaul of corporates. As Camilla Cavendish says this means ditching ‘business as usual’.

Author Image

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.