In the recent “Terminator” sequel, Arnold Schwarzenegger coins a new catchphrase: “I’m old, but I’m not obsolete”. He may not be the latest android, but he has learned to adapt, he is still relevant and his purpose remains consistent. A bit like older workers, then: not ready to be consigned to the scrap-heap, consistent and reliable, and even capable of being upgraded (as Arnie is towards the end of the film).
A great deal of the discussion on employee engagement, business productivity, workplace flexibility and career transition talks about what we do with older employees, particularly those in their 50’s, who often struggle to find comparable work when they are retrenched or “restructured”.
Many 50-somethings can vouch for the fact that making a career transition into another full-time role can be extremely difficult. In my own case, I left my last corporate position just after I turned 50, and I soon realised it would be virtually impossible to find the exact same or similar permanent role elsewhere. So I embarked on a portfolio of interests (non-executive board positions, consulting work, contract roles and entrepreneurship) in order to remain “economically active”.
Over the past four years, in order to remain active, retrain and build my professional networks, I have:
- completed the AICD Company Director course
- served on a number of advisory and pop-up boards
- launched this weekly blog, and written for 3rd party sites
- coached business owners and entrepreneurs
- competed in a FinTech hackathon and a MedTech startup competition
- consulted in the education, public, NFP, publishing, manufacturing, technology and professional services sectors
- joined numerous MeetUp and networking groups
- participated in the Lightning Conference on Victoria’s StartUp Future
- developed a new app for employee performance management,
- trained as a presenter on community radio, and
- become a participant and adviser at the Slow School of Business.
As part of my plan to become familiar with new technology, I have also built a side-project to record and release my own music via Bandcamp and Soundcloud, incorporating many iOS apps for which I am a beta-tester.
Not all of this activity is remunerated, yet the people I work with all tell me how much they value my unique input and original insight, and so I keep on doing it. Given the need/expectation to work longer, and the continued tinkering with tax, super and income rules and policies, I’m not sure many of us can ever think about full-time “retirement” (whatever that now means).
I’m aware that there are some ad hoc initiatives to engage older workers as mentors for new entrants to the workplace. While such projects are well-meaning, and may have some desirable benefits, they are not yet financially sustainable, and don’t address the core issue that the expectation of full-time, permanent, lifelong employment is no longer realistic, and we will all have to adapt to these new circumstances.
On the few occasions I have considered full-time roles, I am staggered that so many prospective employers seem incapable of thinking outside the box: on the one hand, they say they want diversity and fresh thinking; but on the other, they resort to the habit of appointing square pegs for square holes.
There is a real sense among many of my peers that their age counts against them, because either employers don’t believe they can learn new technology or processes, or that their previous seniority means they are only interested in roles where they can wait out their retirement, or simply “direct traffic”, rather than getting their hands dirty. Which is both insulting and demoralising. I recall one early discussion where the recruitment consultant said, “despite what the ad says, the business just wants a safe pair of hands – someone who has done the exact same role in a similar organisation for the past 20 years”. How does that support diversity, in particular, cognitive diversity?
So, my question to employers, hiring managers, industry bodies and policy-makers is: when will you truly embrace the challenge of (and opportunity for) change in your hiring and employment practices, and how do older age workers fit into your thinking (if at all)?
Next week: Startups, VC’s and Entrepreneurs