You're never too old

With pensions retreating over the horizon, a clampdown on ageism at work and a skills shortage, are seniors about to have their moment? Stefan Stern reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the summer of love, Dustin Hoffman was too busy in an upstairs bedroom to think very hard about his future. In spite of the best efforts of the Braddocks' good friend, Mr McGuire, to steer young Benjamin down the right career path, plastics apparently held no great attraction for him.

The same advice to a new graduate today would be subtly different: not plastics, but plastic surgery. Blepharoplasty (that's eye-lid tweaks to you and me) is the operation du jour for more and more professionals.

According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, there was a 50% increase last year in treatments to remove wrinkles and bags around the eyes. Surgically speaking, only women's breasts are receiving more attention than eyes these days.

As reported recently by the Independent on Sunday, the Harley Medical Group, one of the UK's largest cosmetic surgery businesses, claims that there are now four times as many 50-year-olds having surgery in their clinics as there were five years ago. Almost half these patients said they were undergoing treatment to stay young-looking at work.

Norman Waterhouse, a Harley Street face-lift specialist, told the IoS: 'We are all going to be working longer. As we get older, we all have to make sure we are presentable. Where once we would have had a haircut, we now consider surgery a realistic option.'

Good news for Harley Street, perhaps, but would you really be able to get there and back during your lunch break? And would the standard of banter and gossip be as high under the surgeon's knife as it is down the hairdresser's?

Age, though, is a serious business these days. Growing old may be a better option than the alternative, but increased longevity will have to be paid for somehow. Lord Turner's commission on pensions has made the basic situation clear. There is no need to panic, but without longer working lives and later retirement, many of us will face a miserable future.

Unfortunately, this realisation has coincided with two other crucial developments: the beginning of the exodus into retirement of the so-called baby boomers - people born between 1946 and the early 1960s - and the collapse of many apparently secure corporate pension arrangements.

This perfect pensions storm has generated a fairly predictable series of shock-horror headlines: work till you drop, the cold hungry years of retirement, and so on. And indeed, the demographic trends seem to support the view that we are heading for trouble. Some estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be a ratio of fewer than two-and-a-half workers to every pensioner in this country, down from three-and-a-half workers to every pensioner today. Compare that with a radically different dependency ratio (as it's called) in India, where 60% of the population are under 30.

Falling birth rates, combined with greater life expectancy, is one of the more challenging double whammies you could confront. The only consolation is that on the continent of Europe, things look even worse than they do here. In the European Union as a whole, the number of workers aged between 50 and 64 will increase by 25% over the next two decades, while those aged between 20 and 29 will decrease by 20%. Yet labour market participation is healthier among older workers in the UK than in other EU states - in Italy, for example, 60 marks the average exit age from the world of work (in Britain it's 62), and Italy also has one of the lowest fertility rates of all the developed world.

As if this were not already enough to worry about, the EU directive on age discrimination comes into force this October, meaning that any nifty schemes you may have dreamt up to get round staffing difficulties will have to be scrutinised to make sure that they do not discriminate against anyone (yes, anyone) on the grounds of their age, young or old.

That is the context for the great age debate in 2006. 'Three score years and ten' may in future be only the start of things - many of us will be renewing our subscription to MT well into our eighth or even ninth decade. This has stark implications both for us as individuals and for how we manage our businesses and organisations.

Here are four areas where we need to wise up to the challenges of a new era ...

Mr McGuire: I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word.

Ben Braddock: Yes, sir.

Mr McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben Braddock: Yes, I am.

Mr McGuire: 'Plastics'.

The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols


It's the latest addition to the lexicon, an absurd but useful term to describe what more and more organisations will find themselves having to do.

As baby-boomers retire, there may be inadequate levels of management experience and expertise left in the building to fill the new vacancies.

Where has all the grey hair gone? Look out there in the car park, and you can see it heading right back in - in the form of interim managers, consultants, coaches and mentors.

'We've seen quite a bit of this,' says Steve Newhall, MD at consultants DDI. 'This could prove to be quite a lucrative market for people in their sixties and seventies. You can retire but then come back and support the organisation in a different way.'

Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age, is more sceptical about resource re-entry. 'This is great in theory, but how easy will it be to manage in practice?' she asks. 'Bringing people back in could create problems.'

You can see what she means. What if some dreadful old boss you thought you had seen the back of is suddenly tapping at your window with a mandate from on high to offer some 'frank advice'? What if some incompetent manages to worm his way back in to recreate some of the havoc of the past?

'Redeploying people may be at least as good an option as bringing people back in,' Mercer adds. 'Moving people around the business and giving them fresh challenges may be more useful.'


'A man must break his back to earn his day of leisure,' sang John Lennon in the 1965 Beatles track Girl. In the rush to embrace the exciting 21st-century world of longer working lives, we risk forgetting that there is work, and then there is work.

True, most of us are not down at the foundry, below ground or shifting lumps of metal around for a living these days. A lot of work is office-based - stressful at times, certainly, but not normally life-threatening.

Even in the 17% of the economy that can still properly be described as manufacturing, the emphasis is mostly on precision and adding value, not sweating. Most of the dark, satanic mills of the past have become safe, civilised places to work.

Yet millions of people risk physical injury every day. Nurses have to turn and lift patients; drivers endure the stress of traffic and the hazards of the road; baggage-handlers climb into the belly of aeroplanes and lift heavy suitcases from a kneeling position - and they'd better not be slow about it, or they will be docked pay; agricultural workers are bent double for long and unsociable hours.

In short, one person's agreeable, low-impact job that could quite happily be pursued indefinitely - journalism, say - is just not the same thing as actually working for a living.

Many employers are starting to take the health and welfare of their staff more seriously. Bus company First Group has looked at the unhealthy lifestyle of drivers who work late and grab take-away food on the way home. The Royal Mail is examining the physical wear and tear on its staff. Better health could yield one advance in Britain's never-ending quest for greater productivity.

As the TUC has argued, differences in life expectancy mean that a straight rise in the retirement age would affect the poor the most. 'An increase in the state pension age would have little impact on the retirement age of the better off, so it would be those on lower incomes who'd be more likely to work longer to pay for better pensions,' the TUC said in its response to Turner.

The Turner Commission's interim report showed that on average there is a four-year gap in life expectancy, at the age of 65, between men in the highest socio-economic group and men in the lowest. (Bismarck wasn't being stupid when he introduced a state pension in Germany that few would ever live to enjoy.)

Among women, this life-expectancy gap has increased over the past 20 years. And those from poorer backgrounds are less likely to enjoy good health in retirement. There are even greater differences in life expectancy when you compare those who live in the poorest areas with those who live in the richest.

So before we unthinkingly condemn millions of workers to a longer working life, we need to consider the consequences that this might have for them - and whether any sort of exemption from a delayed state pension might make sense for specific categories of workers.


Careers used to be relatively straightforward. On the old x and y axes, with time running along the x horizontal and seniority going up the y vertical, you aimed to achieve perfect linearity: from bottom left to top right, usually over the course of 30 years or so. This left you another five to 10 years at the top, chugging steadily on to a well-earned and extremely comfortable retirement.

Time to think again. You could argue that the word career retains hardly any of the meaning it once had. For one thing, it's likely to be interrupted far more frequently than the old steady-state career was. Young people entering the world of work today can expect to have as many as seven jobs in a lifetime, training and retraining on a number of occasions.

And working life looks set to be extended, so that today's 20-somethings can reasonably assume that they will still be turning up for work when they are 70-somethings.

This new context for careers will force organisations to think quite differently about the deal on offer to employees. For one thing, how can you possibly persuade a graduate to think in terms of a lifetime's commitment to a firm, a period of time that might stretch over five decades? The concept will be almost meaningless to a 23-year-old.

Equally, longer working lives will require changes of pace and trajectory.

Increased flexibility will be required as quality-of-life issues increase in importance and employees find themselves responsible for the care not only of children but of dependent relatives (their ageing parents in particular).

Career breaks and sabbaticals, downshifting or deliberate plateau periods in your career may all make sense. The 50-year career is certainly more of a marathon - or even a triathlon - than a sprint.

This also has implications for the structure of businesses and organisations.

If we still want flatter organisations, then a lot more lateral job moves are going to have to be made available. We might even have to accept the odd backward step or two.

Our career peak may come at 40, 45 or 50, followed by further years at less senior levels (James Crosby is stepping down at HBOS this summer at the ripe old age of ... 49).

Another risk arises here: that of job-blocking. Those 50-somethings whose vision of early retirement has been dashed may now be looking to stay on for another 10 years or more. This could have knock-on effects for the next wave of managers rising up the business. How do you retain talent that you cannot immediately promote?

EFA's Mercer believes a lot of employees will find the more flexible rules of this career game difficult to adjust to. 'Women have had more experience in the last couple of decades of trying to make flexibility work,' she says. 'It may be much harder for some men to adjust their expectations.

People have worked for many years with a specific plan for their retirement - it's hard to suddenly turn all those ideas upside-down.'


The joker in the pack is the new EU directive on age discrimination, coming into force this October. Employment lawyers fear the worst - or the best, depending on how you look at it. Until new case law is established, every employment tribunal is likely to have an age element in the claim, says Caroline Carter, partner and head of the employment law practice at legal firm Ashurst.

The problem is that the directive has been so worded as to regard any age discrimination - of any kind, against anyone of any age - as wrong.

So any benefits, perks, long-service awards or recruitment practices that are based on people's age are likely to be challenged sooner or later.

This will do little to alleviate any existing inter-generational tensions that may exist within the business.

Of course, we should be concerned about unfair age discrimination. A recent survey conducted by the Chartered Management Institute and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that more than 50% of people felt they had been on the receiving end of it at work.

As many as 39% thought that their chances of promotion had been harmed by it. Ageism can cut both ways: 'too old' or 'too young' may be used as an argument against a candidate - but both phrases are likely to fall foul of the new legislation.

Prejudices need to be challenged. Older workers are not 'too slow' or 'too stale'.

As part of Vodafone's 'Working Nation' research earlier this year, the over-55s were revealed as being the most likely to come up with new ideas on a daily basis.

Older workers do not bring more health problems with them to work - they are, if anything, among the most reliable employees you can find. But nor should younger workers be written off as feckless and reckless. They will keep turning up too if they are treated well and given interesting work to do.

Youth is not wasted on young people, as George Bernard Shaw once claimed.

In any case, when does 'young' end these days, exactly?

There are 1 million fewer British people in their twenties today than there were 10 years ago, and for the first time there are now more 55- to 64-year-olds than there are 16- to 24-year-olds

Across the EU, the number of workers aged between 50 and 64 will increase by 25% in the next two decades, whereas the number aged between 20 and 29 will drop by 20%

Only 28% of 60-year-olds in the UK are in any kind of employment, part-time or full-time

At least 40% of people who retire early feel that they were forced to against their will and would rather have continued work.


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