Sunday, 14 June 2015

Over 50s, the new thirty-year olds

I've been reading about the "older" (over-50) worker - something I've been for a few years now. 

A recent paper by the Institute of Leadership and Management  which got a fair amount of coverage in the press week starts with the encouraging observation that "Baby Boomers (aged 51–70) are seen as loyal, skilled and knowledgeable members of the workforce – but they aren’t viewed by their colleagues and managers as the ‘organisational stars’ of the future and they are perceived as having little potential for further progression or development in their organisations". Well, isn't that nice!

I recognise some of the things written in the paper although in the world of finance, I'm not sure it's all about oldish workers being seen as lacking in leadership potential. In the latest flurry of redundancies at a variety of firms, I know a number of over-50s who have lost their jobs. Nothing too shocking in that perhaps  - I know more over-50s than under-30s so the sample of my acquaintances is biased - but I do remember being surprised when I was told me over 15 years ago that there only three over 50s left on the Bishopsgate  trading floor of NatWest Markets.

What happened 15 yrs ago still happens now - when numbers need cutting, the older worker is a prime candidate. The justification is usually that organisations get too top-heavy: the number of people with  business cards that say 'Managing Director' is high relative to those who cards read 'Associate'. The management pyramid is inverted and better to lose someone who is not seen as 'an organisational star of the future' than  some bright young thing. And why not? This is the City, where dog eats dog and so on.  Mind you, if more and more people are living longer, having families later and working into well their 50s or 60s, I can't help feeling that a decade-long flow of workers from sell-side investment banks to buy-side fund managers means there's a role for the fifty-something sales-person who has known these clients for half a lifetime.

Separately, I was signed up a fortnight ago by a colleague to participate in a '100-day journey' measuring how much exercise people take. It's a team event, run by some people called GCC and my employer has decided that this would be good for the staff, or fun, or something. I was handed a step counter and sent on my way. I dutifully fill in the number of steps every day, with the intention of making sure that I take more exercise than the average. No problem there, the global GCC average is a little over 12000 steps a day. My (erratic) round of golf yesterday morning ran my total up to 16000 before lunch. Looking at average steps for various cohorts on the website I find that men step more than women and that 50-54 year-old men step more than the average man.

This isn't a complete surprise.  By and large, my generation of late baby-boomer over-50s is pretty motivated to stay in decent-ish shape. We got the message about smoking ages ago and even if the one about alcohol has been largely ignored, we have gym memberships and we force our 'dad bods' into luminescent lycra cycling clothes with far too much enthusiasm. We're (mostly) no longer taking children to the Pirate's Playhouse or the zoo on Saturday mornings - or even to football/skating/ballet.   Instead, we have time to get some exercise in before we take the children to the Oval to watch T20 (where £8 for Pimms makes the prices for ice cream at the zoo seem almost reasonable).

Another thing I recognise in my age group is that they turn up for the morning meeting.
The average age of people in a dealing room is in the 30s, but at 6:45 a.m, it's a good bit older. The young worker finds getting out of bars and clubs in time to get enough sleep and make it to the morning meeting hard. The young parent is sleep-deprived. A decade ago, when asked how long I would go on working I said I couldn't imagine stopping, but I could easily imagine giving up morning meetings. Yet I find it easier to wake up now than I used to and travelling round London after 7 a.m is almost too hideous to contemplate. Nowadays, the choice is between being at my desk early, or connecting to it from a computer far away from London.

Of course, the fact that I'm a fan of the over-50s work ethic and would happily employ them if I were an organisational star (future or present) won't change employers' attitudes towards them. But what will go on changing is the number of older people who are still working. It's going to go on growing. I may not take the children to Alexandra Palace ice rink on Sunday mornings any more, but they're not likely to be financially independent any time soon. My generation can't afford to stop working even if it wants to. But if "having little potential for further progression" means we aren't competing for the top jobs, "loyal, skilled and knowledgeable" has its merits. The over-50s I know who've lost their jobs mostly seem to find new ones pretty quickly, even if they have to take a cut in pay. In the process, they act as an anchor on wage growth across the pay scale (except for CEOs, but that's another story).

The changes in the workforce aren't limited to the over-50s male of course, it's just that this is the group I know best. If I were a woman, I might be inclined to think about the number of women who either have, or want to return to the workforce and have a deep pool of skill as well as a huge amount of motivation after taking some time away. If I were bit older, I'd point to the desire to shift the work-life balance around, without actually stopping work. Thoughts on the world from members of these groups can be found here (from @LadyFOHF on twitter) or here from (@georgemagnus1).

Mostly, I think too many employers are woefully out of touch with the way the labour force is changing and are  still wedded to an antiquated understanding of what 'work-life balance' means. They regard surfing the internet in your office as 'work' and reading The Global Economy in transition at home as 'life'. And if they think older workers are loyal, skilled and knowledgeable but have little potential, they'll end up finding out how much they have in common with dinosaurs.

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