I took part in an online workshop last week on the topic of age diversity in the workplace. I suspect I was the oldest participant, but as the fascinating discussion unfolded and evolved, it became clear that “years” of life were less important than your attitude, mindset and willingness/capacity to learn with and from others.
“Attitude is your ultimate energy source for a better life.”
Barbara Babbit Kaufman
The concept of upward and downward mentoring was covered, and this led me to reflect on how much I have learned, personally and professionally over my working life. It seems counter-intuitive, but most of my learning – both formal and informal – has been in the latter stages of my career.
When I somewhat nervously entered the workforce in the mid 1970s (ok now I DO feel old!) the country was just entering the turbulent era of toxic industrial relations, compounded by a rapid decline in heavy industry and manufacturing. I spent 7 years in the private sector, firstly temping, then in a family retail business, then in a large food manufacturing factory. The latter was just beginning a major restructuring and reduction in capacity, resulting in around 2000 redundancies. This was an interesting time to be working in HR!
My memory of the workplaces at that time was one of strict hierarchy, and in the food plant they even had separate canteens for hourly paid and salaried staff as well as a directors' dining room. There was also strict demarcation between different sections and departments, between skilled and unskilled staff, and different Unions, all of which sadly culminated in ignorance and negativity. This caused widespread tension across the organisation and did little to engender a positive culture. The company became one of the casualties of globalisation, and production was gradually moved overseas resulting in its eventual closure.
My memorable first temp position was in a jute mill in Dundee where I had been hired as a shorthand typist. I was given a hand-written letter to type, and left to get on with it. There were a few grammatical and spelling errors which I simply could not ignore, so I corrected these and handed the typed letter over. This was my first lesson in office politics. I was told in no uncertain terms that I should type what I was given. My question “including the spelling and grammatical errors?” did not go down well, and suffice to say my three day contract was terminated early.
“Confidence is quiet. Insecurity is loud.”
That sense of injustice has stayed with me for 45 years, and I hope I have never caused a younger colleague to feel rejected or devalued if they have offered a suggestion to improve something, or have pointed out a mistake I've made.
“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because some day in your life you will have been all of these.”
George Washington Carver
Today with an ever rising retirement age, and a tendency for fewer career breaks, multi-generational working is the norm, and this brings with it both challenges and opportunities. Despite the unquestionable speed, efficiency and productivity improvements driven by technology, my experience is that in recent years workplaces have become even more fast-paced and demanding.
Multi-tasking, collaboration and innovation have become the norm, but the downside is that staff can feel under pressure. Inter-generational differences are also more widely exposed. However, these differences can be tackled if the different generations are able to respect each other’s values, are willing to learn about preferred working styles and avoid stereotyping.
COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the workplace, with the huge shift to home and online working. This has pushed digital natives and digital immigrants together, but rather than widening the gap, once I familiarised myself with Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp groups etc, I have found technology to be enabling and I have a dedicated work area with my iPad and laptop permanently plugged in and ready for action.
The classic “YOUR'E ON MUTE” reminder has become an ice-breaker rather than a reinforcement of the stereotype of the baby boomer’s inability or unwillingness to adopt new forms of technology.
One area we covered in my recent workshop was retirement, and an acknowledgement that some people would prefer to “ease” out of work rather than stop abruptly. I’ve been fortunate to take this approach through The Leader.
When The Leader was established, we were clear that this was an encore career with our guiding principles closely aligned to the Encore movement. We love Encore’s vision of viewing an ageing society as a solution, not a problem. Baby boomers are now seen as an extraordinary resource, encouraged to apply their experience to make a difference for others.
Another concept I have written about previously is that of a “marathon career” with the idea posited by psychologist Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, that we shouldn’t start working full-time until we are 40.
She argues for a new model around career pacing. One where “rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.”
The pandemic has exacerbated a wide range of social and economic challenges and accelerated the need for solutions. Being open and flexible to inter-generational working, promoting a culture of life-long learning and building on the lessons learned so far, offer some positive ways forward.
It is heartening too to learn of initiatives which are emerging across the globe.
"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow."
Take care, lead well