What do all the following people have in common? Rudy Guiliani; Roger Scruton; Conrad Black; Diana Ross; George Lucas; Rutger Hauer; Jerry Springer; Kiri Te Kanawa; Robert Powell; Jeff Beck; Erno Rubik? So far in 2009, they have all turned 65. Accordingly, they have reached retirement age, and are – by extension of this ‘logic’ – no longer required. They can hang up their boots, plectrums, cubes, frocks and microphones: their abilities have left the auditorium. Speaking purely personally, I could live without a couple of them, but surely our attitude to arbitrary ‘best before dates’ on our fellow human beings needs a rethink?

It seems I’m not alone. Surfing the news channels this week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘old’ is the new ‘black’: social care provision is coming under (long overdue) review, and final-salary scheme pensions are still being closed (two of the latest high-profile examples are IBM and Barclays). Back in January 2009, a study by the National Association of Pensions Funds (NAPF) received coverage in The Times, casting one of those occasional chinks of light on a forward-facing bubble of nightmare proportions as companies hit by stock market falls face huge holes in future pension provision. While there are enormous economic and financial issues at play here way beyond our scope in a mere blog post, one comment did stand out for perhaps unintentional reasons:

… even in good times, companies are tiring of the costs and risks involved in offering final salary schemes to their employees. They didn’t come into business to run pension funds.”

Demographics, global finance and personal insecurities are combining to shine a spotlight on ageing – a topic that has had an oddly low profile in recent years. Given its inevitability, ageing has been surprising easy to overlook: perhaps forgetfulness sets in much earlier than we have hitherto believed?

And now retirement age policy in the UK is to be reviewed. Given the impending impasse of increasing numbers of pension-age people to support from currently falling tax revenues, something somewhere had to give. As it appears ‘something somewhere’ won’t include IBM, Barclays or many other companies, the retirement age is one obvious candidate. And having the option (until such time as pensionable age changes, of course) to work longer isn’t necessarily all about keeping the pension bill down. As The Employers Forum on Age – founded in 1996 as a campaigning body –argues:

 The arguments for removing retirement age are compelling on every level. From a political, economic and business perspective it is clear neither government nor employers can afford to waste the talent of older workers.”

Practice, however, remains perversely variable on the ground. Ming Campbell resigned as Liberal Democrat leader aged 66, in part as unkind media coverage of his age had made his position untenable (a series of events his subsequent successor, Nick Clegg, commented sternly on at the time.)  Many universities start seeking to retire their academics – professionals hired presumably for their accumulated knowledge and wisdom – at 50. Without a hint of irony, this includes historians, who it seems can be too old.

The leaders in practice in the UK in pro-actively challenging ageism – ironically in a different way, given that it seems increasingly that our individual long-term futures will have to be self-made – are DIY giants B&Q. Changeboard carried an overview of B&Q’s approach to ‘an age diverse workforce’ in March 2009, making it clear that the benefits are mutual: a branch staffed entirely by the over-50s outperforms ‘regular’ branches, older staff – who (importantly, it should be noted) have chosen to continue working often develop mentoring relationships with younger colleagues, and customers can benefit too, as two quotes illustrate:

Older people are more likely to be home owners and have some knowledge of DIY, making them more reflective of our customer base and ideally placed to offer in store support and great customer service.”

Our customer service also improved with the age of our workforce as there are clear business benefits to employing people who reflect our customer profile. Older workers have a great rapport with our customers and are able to give sound advice based on similar life experiences.”

Despite the experience of B&Q’s oldest employee – Reg Hill, who the company sold a new plant for charity in celebration of his 90th birthday while still working for them – it might be premature, however, to think that simply letting us all work longer will generate an instant garden of roses. Attitudes to ageing are very much still-standing Canute-like as the passage of time laps up the beach: looking at a Guardian article from 2005, ‘how much has changed since then’ is a perfectly valid question. Among its reported findings at the time:

…deep-rooted prejudice against job applicants over 50 still has not gone away. A survey of 873 employers by law firm Peninsula found that 47% admit to discriminating against older workers during the hiring process. The findings echo research carried out by the CIPD, which found that a third of workers over 50 experienced some form of discrimination at work. Peninsula’s Peter Done says: “It would be naive to believe that a more senior candidate would not be suitable for a business, with time and experience being an invaluable commodity that younger employees will not be able to offer.”

Even B&Q’s description of its own approach includes the admission: “Our training budget was also reduced as we found our older workers came with good experience and skills levels, along with a conscientious attitude and real enthusiasm for the job.” While balancing development costs against recruitment costs is obviously important to any business, hiring older people to save training budgets is ultimately replacing one variation on age discrimination with another. Unlike cricketers (who can retire at 31 – albeit probably in financial security – if Andrew Flintoff is an example), the rest of us look set to be hurdlers into our dotage, overcoming the legitimacy of compulsory retirement only to have to clamber over other attitudes to us that don’t seem to sit too comfortably with valuing our wisdom, experience and customer service skills. (And – speaking for myself – the older I get, the more comfortably I enjoy sitting.)

It certainly looks at present as if our attitude to retirement policy will ultimately change: a great many are arguing for it, not just amongst charities for the older age groups, but among business bodies too as you can read at Personnel Today, Management Today (although the CBI, interestingly, seems more sceptical). But our attitudes to ageing and what it means in the workplace for both individuals and organisations certainly need more thought. Frankly, we might as well start today – we’re none of us getting any younger.

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