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A multi-faceted personal dilemma
I’m increasingly noticing that ageism is coming up the corporate agenda: very, very slowly, very gently, but it is beginning to emerge. However, for senior professionals working in large organisations who are becoming aware that ageism is an issue, there’s a real dilemma. Do I just avoid the issue? Should I keep quiet, soldier on and do my best to keep out of situations where ageism is going to directly impact my future? Or should I use my own resourcefulness to overcome it? Do I join with others to increase the momentum with which ageism appears on the corporate agenda and actively campaign to defend my rights as an older person? Do I look for injustice suffered by younger people, or somebody who’s neither older or younger and complain that age is a protected characteristic in law? What should I do?
Vote with your feet
Perhaps in the past, my instinct would have been to recommend you say nothing, keep your head down and, if it becomes a problem, leave the organisation and find a new context in which you can embrace a new workstyle, without the threats of ageism. This is pretty much the strategy I’ve taken in the past. By becoming self-employed and building my own business with a rich portfolio of activities, I have, to a large extent, been able to lean on my knowledge, skills and experience, and no longer rely upon my youthful energetic exuberance. I’ve been able to play to my lack of hair or my grey hair as an experienced professional and move away from the ‘whizz kid’ era, when I was playing most on the fact that I was doing new things with new technology that nobody had been doing before.
Seeing the bigger picture
But as I look further into the future, I have a real concern that, although I’m able to get the work I want, ageism issues are going to have wider impact on me and prevent me having a fulfilling and meaningful future life. If I don’t address it personally in the situations I face with the people I’m working with and the environment I have the opportunity to influence, I will suffer as I get older. The whole of society will suffer as the whole of society is ageing. The whole environment in which I am going to work out the rest of my days will come less and less conducive to a fruitful and enjoyable life.
Why have I come to believe this? Firstly, I’ve seen how important it is to be able to continue to work beyond 50, into your 60s and even into your 70s. In August 2022, many of you will have heard that the actress playing Peggy Archer finally retired at the age of 103. She recognised she was very privileged to have a role in which she could continue to work until 103. But for many of us, we will need to have earned income to address the cost of living beyond our 60s, into our 70s and perhaps even beyond that.
Workplace attitudes influence society attitudes
The other thing is the attitude that people have to older people in the workplace, tends to set the scene for the attitude that people have beyond the workplace. People spend so much of their waking lives in their working lives, that the ethos in the workplace will dominate the ethos in the rest of society. Whether as employers, employees, consumers, or marketeers, the tone is set in the workplace as to how society views older people. This is why I’m so delighted to see the way that the Organisation for Better Ageing, is actively building a photo library that shows older people with much more positive images. Alongside that photo library they’re building icons that are celebrating older people in different ways. This provides an opportunity to move away from the stereotypes that we too often we see in media content over time.
Changing intent and changing action
Every little counts in the workplace. When you are involved in recruiting, you have an opportunity to talk to HR about how that recruitment process can be age blind, both in terms of the way the job description is written, the person specification designed, the advert set out and the way the assessment of candidates is done. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s also about the attitude that organisations have to their customers, to their clients, to beneficiaries, to their service users. Are they intentionally ensuring that those things are accessible to people of all ages, as far as the law permits? In an increasingly digital world, are they ensuring that their digital platforms are accessible to those people who have poorer eyesight, hard of hearing, colour blindness or limited mobility? How are they ensuring that people who wouldn’t naturally engage with computers, can access those services and interact with those organisations through mobile phones, where it still works on a screen which is such a small size.
But it applies to the way you attract customers too. The branding, marketing, images of people you are using and the way that things are sold, all shape attitudes. How often are you using positive stereotypes of younger people and negative stereotypes of older people. Are you ensuring that products and services find the people that will increasingly control more of the wealth in this country and engaging older people on their own terms? Or are you buying into the negativity towards older people that has been documented in national surveys. Are your services enabling younger people to access the financial futures that their parents and grandparents already have? Are you being intentional in creating a world that younger people can enjoy which meets their needs. How much are you buying into ageist stereotypes and how much are you contributing to the fracturing of intergenerational relationships. We live in a world where market segmentation is heralded as a powerful tool, but to what extent is that being used to exclude people rather than connect people?
You can make a difference
Whatever your role within an organisation, I would say that you can influence the ageism agenda. Whether that’s through recruitment, product design, marketing, promotion and access to training, you can find a place of influence. You can choose to challenge ageist comments, ageist rhetoric and even simple language like, ‘I’m having a senior moment’, which builds prejudice into everyday interactions. Doing nothing, I would suggest, is undermining your own future. We are all getting older. We will rely upon the success of younger people as we grow older. Ageism prevents the best for people at all ages.
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.