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We focus a lot on older people who have left or fallen out of the workforce, but what about valuing those still there more?
In the last few years there has been a lot of focus on health and on appeals to people who have retired and may be seeking to come back to work due to the cost of living crisis. But what about the older people who are still in work? How do they feel?
Of course, people over 50 are by no means a homogenous group. A person who is 51 is at a different life stage than someone who is 64. Someone who is enjoying their job and thriving in a relaxed workplace culture is very different from someone who feels they are stuck in a rut or is run ragged. Someone who has been able to start their own business and earn enough from it is very different from someone who has been forced to go self employed due to circumstances and can’t make a decent living.
But in the round there are definitely some striking features about older workers who are still in work. One is that they tend to feel that their life experience is not valued properly. Another is that, against all the stereotypes, they are overwhelmingly open to learning new things or to changing direction, if they knew what direction to take.
The truth is that many people can do their job perfectly adequately by the time they reach their 50s. But could they do more? Not more work, but different work or doing their same job in a different way, for instance, guiding younger people or doing more community work or something that they feel makes a difference. Why should we just stick with a job to get our pensions at a time when those pensions seem to keep ever further into the distance? We should demand more of work, given we spend so much of our time doing it.
I speak to so many people about their working life stories and what always strikes me is how much people have done in their lives and what they have learned, but also how little of this is either recognised or harnessed by their employer. Often the employer knows hardly anything about the person’s achievements before they took up their job. Is that due to the interview process not being fit for purpose as some argue? Would a simple conversation elicit more about who a person is and what they have to offer than the usual interview questions? To some extent it would depend on the skills of the interviewer, their ability to put the person at ease rather than on the defensive. It would also depend on the interviewee being open to talk.
The problem is time. A conversation takes at least an hour. AI can whittle down shortlists, but in doing so will it exclude the very people who have interesting perspectives to add to an organisation, who have maybe not gone down the conventional pathway, who have had a winding career path due to their life circumstances?
Reforming the interview process or at least questioning it would be a good start, but it doesn’t deal with dissatisfaction within jobs. That requires something different – processes that encourage honest conversations and creative thinking about how jobs can be adapted to make the most of an individual’s skills, experience and interests. Of course, people will still have to fulfil certain specific functions as needed, but maybe they could do that differently so that they keep learning, but not in a tickbox way – in ways that really engage them and make them think. How many of us have done online courses where you have to answer a series of questions at the end to test you were awake while listening to a chatbot talk you through a particular subject? It’s cheap, of course, but do you remember anything five minutes afterwards? Real learning happens when you engage with a subject and with a teacher. That doesn’t mean it needs to be face to face. It just means that it shouldn’t be passive.
Learning is something we do from birth. We soak up new things and there’s no reason older people are any different. Through a lifetime of different experiences we keep learning, but we also have more questions. We should be better at tapping into and exploring that, of opening horizons up rather than closing them down.