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The cry of the youngster is, ‘when I grow up, I want to…’, sometimes I want to become…, sometimes I want to do… . When I leave home, I will be able to … .Maybe it’s get that job, be with that person, go to that particular part of the world, have the travel, have the house. We spend most of our younger years with great hopes for the future and a confidence that as we get older, we will be able to do more, have more choice and more opportunity.  But somehow, as people move into their second half of their lives, fifty plus, the cultural assumption is that your choices are going to be limited. 

Limited choices as you get older?

The truth is that people can have good health and be fit into their late seventies, early eighties, and some people keep going into their early nineties without any significant reduction in their quality of life.  But for some reason, we start to persuade ourselves and culture encourages us to believe, that post fifty our choices and our options will diminish. 

You see this reflected in the TV advertising.  If you enjoy a certain kind of television programme, then you will get relentless promotion of the cruise, an opportunity for older people to be kept in an environment which isolates them from the wider world, where they are looked after and offered the promise of a glimpse of luxury for a limited period of time, because what else is here in life that’s worth living for? 

Or perhaps you will see those adverts for various forms of aids to living with mobility scooters, walk in baths, chairs that will help you get out of them, beds that will bend in different shapes: advertising that emphasises your disability rather than your ability. 

Of course, the people featured in those adverts are improbably youthful, which in some ways reinforces the fact that, as you get older, you will, even if you look youthful, suffer from all of these ailments.  You need to prepare your life for being unable to walk or unable to get out of bath, even though the actors in these adverts look very fit and healthy. 

Those images of what it means to get older, then set the tone for all sorts of other impacts on our lives. 

Limited by prejudice about health

In healthcare settings there is a prejudice to giving even fit and healthy older people interventions, which, if they were younger with the same level of health, could be expected to be successful.  There are expectations that people’s capacity to make decisions and take control of their own lives, will diminish very rapidly, often as early as 50.  Absolutely there are realities of disability, of dementia, people with heart and breathing problems.  But why is it that those are the dominant images of people as they get into their later years? 

This also starts to have an impact on your ability to get work.  If the assumption is that older people will be more vulnerable, frail and otherwise incapacitated, then why would you offer them a job irrespective of the status of the individuals health condition, irrespective of their individual fitness irrespective of individual mental capacity? Yet we’re in a world where older people need to be able to generate income to sustain their lives, longer than ever before.   We have all heard of the prejudice against women of childbearing age who miss out on work opportunities because employers assume they will ‘just get pregnant’.  Similar prejudices are at work with the over-50s who will ‘just get ill’.

Shifting the perception of older people? 

There are some great examples of actors who carry on into their eighties, doing interesting, powerful, and well received work.  There was a recent example of a football manager who came back from retirement to manage a club in his late sixties.  But these examples are few and far between.  In fact, they are so exceptional, they are seen as newsworthy.

Yet we’re in a world where technology can enable us to be effective for longer and longer, where health is sustained for longer and longer.  Remember we have a talent crisis but too often exclude the knowledge, skills and experience of those 50+.

I am really impressed with the work of the Centre for Ageing Better. One of the things they’ve done is distributed a whole set of positive images: a photo library that can be used by people who want to represent older people in their articles.  They have also created a whole set of icons to represent hope and offer positive images of older people.

The centre offers ways that you can become an age-friendly employer.  The government has endorsed the need for employers to be flexible to support women returners and flexible to those with caring responsibilities. Why not extend that flexibility to people who have got to a stage of their lives, where perhaps they no longer want or need to work 5 or 6 days a week? Many would enjoy part time working, value working at a different time of day, want to to have the holidays free, so that they can provide child care for their grandchildren. 

Digital accessibility matters for older people

We depend on operating in a digital world but too little is done to enable older people to access digital technology.  If their hearing is weaker or their eyesight is impaired, even highly computer literate older people can have their choices restricted.  Without embedding accessibility into screen design, design layouts, providing ‘alt text’ and providing subtitles, providers limit the choices of older people.  To my mind, it is shocking that OfCom permits on-demand TV providers like ITV Hub to remove all subtitling from their on-demand programming even if it is in the original broadcast programme.

What do we want to do when we grow older?

I would suggest the reality is, as we get older we are in a society which reduces our choices, at the very point in our lives where we have the potential to have more freedom than ever.

Our reduced obligations to children, to work and to family can give us wider a choice as to what we want to do. Yet society seems determined to limit our ability to make the most of those thirty or forty years after 50 that we were looking forward to, when we were working so hard, in our twenties, thirties and forties.

Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.