Respect your elders…?

by | Oct 31, 2017

How best to work with all ages of our workforce

In a time when people are living longer and retirement is a distant dream, it is important not to shun our elder workers and their experience. Instead we need to learn how to all work together.

This blog has a somewhat outdated title I know.

I’m a child of generation ‘X’. I was raised when it was unusual to show disrespect for authority figures (police, teachers, anyone in uniform) and the phrase ‘respect your elders’ was still commonplace. I grew up respecting those who were older and wiser.


With age comes experience

So, what’s prompted this burst of nostalgia? I was reading a post on LinkedIn earlier this week. It had lots of comments, making me pause to see what people were talking about. The post was innocuous. It was a simple request for people with project management skills to get in touch. The comments were a debate about the pro’s and cons of choosing someone young, inexperienced and cheap versus someone older, wiser and presumably therefore, expensive.

It caught my attention as one comment was a long and impassioned plea from an ‘older’ person (mid 50’s at most). They asked everyone to recognise the value of older people and the knowledge, experience and commitment they can bring to a role. It made me stop and think about the conversations I’ve been having over the last 12 months in my role at CDS (we provide brilliant outplacement support to people of all ages facing redundancy). I’ve noticed a trend; everyone I’ve spoken to who’s age starts with a five, talks about how hard it’s going to be ‘at my age’ to find a suitable new role.

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Career crises or career change?

If Fifty is the new forty, why do so many of us have a ‘career crisis’ when faced with job hunting in the prime of our lives? And, will our ‘millennial’ colleagues face the same challenges when they reach the ripe old age of fifty? More importantly, what can we do about it?

Those born today in the UK have a life expectancy of 107. Their working lives will be long (around 60 years) and varied (at least 3 distinct careers). Starting a new career at 50 won’t be unusual, and neither will taking a career break to retrain or even recharge. Thoughts of retirement will, most likely, be reserved for octogenarians.

Organisations will need to think differently in the future about ‘career management’. Age and life-stage will no longer be synonymous. Managers will need to tune-in to their individual team members, with greater emphasis on individual career drivers and work/life planning.

Some things we can do right now:

Don’t make assumptions

It’s easy to fall prey to our unconscious bias and make assumptions based on current societal norms (age and life-stage). We are already seeing people working and adding significant value well into their 70’s, so don’t assume someone in their fifties is hankering after retirement.

Believe anyone can be hi-potential

High potential programmes were conceived as ‘fast-track’ development for bright ‘young’ things. In my experience this is already changing, with more companies investing in career development across a broader age spectrum. But it’s worth thinking about whether you could be doing more to engage, develop and retain the fifty-something knowledge-custodians in your business.

Create opportunities for shared-learning

You don’t have to formally introduce mentoring/reverse mentoring for people of all ages share-learning. Create a culture that values diversity and the enabling conditions for joint working and people will learn from each other.

Build a diverse leadership team

Is your leadership team representative of the workforce in age, gender and ethnicity? If not, how might this influence succession planning?

Be kind to leavers

Organisational change is unavoidable, redundancy is mainstream and yet, many people in their fifties are experiencing it for the first time. We speak to people on a daily basis with over 20 years’ service in one company. They find job hunting baffling and are suffering a drop in confidence as a result of consultation ‘processes’, which leave them feeling cold. Remember the people at the heart of the process and make sure line managers feel comfortable in supporting their teams through what is inevitably a difficult time for everyone.

Finally, be kind to yourself 

If you’re reading this as someone who has had a long and successful career and you’re looking for your next move (through redundancy or otherwise), you are good enough. You do have valuable skills and experience to offer and you will find a new role. You will also experience a few knock-backs along the way, that’s normal. The secret is to not only find the organisation looking for the things you offer, but also the one that’s the right fit for you.

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Nicky Smith Contributor
Nicky is Regional Director at Career Directed Solutions (CDS) who are a niche consulting firm.
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