Addressing the elephant in the room speaks to Rachel Brushfield of ProAge about the work they are doing to promote age diversity through age diversity audits, multigenerational training and more.

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Rachel Brushfield came to her current post as Strategic Planning and Community Manager of ProAge through a career change programme and years spent working with businesses through her coaching consultancy. A small charity with four trustees and two part-time contractors, ProAge’s aim is age inclusion and helping managers and leaders to manage multi-generational teams. As such, it conducts age-inclusion audits and training sessions to help managers and leaders develop multi-generational teams and age-inclusive cultures as well as offering mentoring and group coaching.

Rachel’s background is in marketing, brand strategy and communications for design, innovation and advertising agencies. After several years of running her own consultancy she was craving greater variety and career purpose so when her sister sent her a news cutting about coaching she decided to retrain. She spent a year and a half doing NLP training while continuing to work on the side until, nearly 25 years ago, she converted her consultancy into a coaching business, focused on executive career and life coaching. 

Rachel mainly coached mid-career women who needed help marketing themselves so that they could get to the next level. She worked mainly in HR, advertising and law where the problem of female representation in senior management roles was more acute. She has worked closely with the Law Society to help women, especially mothers, break through career barriers, but, despite writing two books for the Society and being very determined to push for change, she has found it frustrating that not much has shifted in terms of the traditional law firm model’s impact on women’s careers and progression. Nevertheless, she says that Covid helped to move the dial on flexible working. “Companies don’t tend to make changes except when they are in pain,” she says, “and we are not quite there yet with law.” 

Like her clients, Rachel [pictured right] has become accustomed to taking a reflective step back in her own career and she regularly goes on retreats to rethink everything.  She says, for instance, that her decision to work in a portfolio way – doing everything from career coaching and events to writing, research and consultancy work – is a conscious one as it gives her the variety she craves. She says: “I don’t fit in a ‘neat box’! I have consciously broadened my skills, knowledge and experience throughout my career and developed career capital to make myself more marketable.”

As the coaching market was becoming more and more crowded, she self-funded a professional development break in talent management and employer branding, as she was missing strategy work. after 20+ years as a coach she felt a bit stale and she also wanted more financial stability. So she signed up with Brave Starts, a career change organisation, in order to get a fresh perspective on her work and because she liked the robust data approach plus Lucy Standing, its leader, as a human being.

Standing knew one of the ProAge trustees and had heard that ProAge were looking for someone to manage their office. She says: ““I wanted a role that I could do from home, and which would utilise my planning and organising strengths.” She has now been in the job supporting ProAge on a part-time contract basis for a year.

The challenges of getting employers on board

Rachel says that, while there has been a growth in the number of organisations promoting age diversity, there are still a lot of challenges getting a wider number of employers to take action. For ProAge, which is a small charity, partnering, sponsorship and volunteer ambassadors are key and Rachel has been able to exploit the strong networks she has built over the last decades. 

However, she says age diversity has been on the periphery of employers’ awareness, with the diversity and inclusion focus centring on other issues. That may be changing due to the current skills shortages as a result of Brexit, the ‘Great Resignation, and other factors. 

Rachel says many companies are suffering from initiative fatigue and tend not to plan too far ahead because making the changes necessary to transform workplace culture to attract and retain the right people is viewed as too big a step to take, particularly in an unstable world. She thinks it is easier for employers to do nothing than to change workforce planning and recruitment processes to attract and retain older workers, for instance, through valuing portfolio workers more. Many, however, view this intransigence as ironic given it is making such changes that helps companies weather the storms better.  

ProAge has also got better at targeting the employers who will move from words to action. That includes early adopters, those with HR decision makers who are over 50, those with an over 50+ customer/client base, those needing to build their employer brand in the face of skills shortages and those who are progressive on diversity and inclusion issues. It is currently conducting research on the services it offers.

Rachel says that ProAge has found employers struggle in particular with managing a multigenerational workforce. Managers tend not to have had any training in this. Challenges include a younger manager managing an older, more experienced colleague and how both feel about each other as well as issues around culture, language, communications and technology. Rachel says it is important to address the elephant in the room at sessions on multigenerational working by asking direct questions in a safe space, facilitated by an objective ProAge expert, exploring, for instance, whether those in the room see older workers as an asset or a liability to get the discussion started. “People need to talk about these things rather than tiptoe around them,” she states.

She would like to see more investment in auditing and measuring age diversity on the grounds that what gets measured gets done. And she thinks employers need to be much more aware of ageist stereotypes and to counter these with positive case studies, talent alumni pools and an awareness of the benefits that older workers bring. They also need to have time to reflect on longer term trends such as demographic changes through retreats and workshops which give them the space and time to think. 

“Employers need to view embracing older workers as an opportunity, see not doing anything as a cost and focus on longer term workforce planning,” she says. “Kicking the can down the road with the ageing population helps no one and achieves nothing. The smart organisations are the ones who act now, despite ongoing uncertainty, building a sustainable competitive advantage and their employer brand and attracting the cream of talent, saving on recruitment costs.”

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