‘It’s like the book of life has got longer, but the chapters have got shorter’
Every country around the world is seeing an increase in its average age and a rise in the proportion of people aged over 65. Inevitably, this means longer working lives. But are we, and society, geared up for that? Amanda Eulenkamp finds out more about the impact longevity will have on us all...
STEVE WALL is an articulate gentleman, 67 years of age, who wants to be economically active. Nothing wrong with that you may think, but in reality, how easy is it to find work at his age?
If you’re reading this as a 20- or 30-something, you may think 67 is ‘old’. If you’re reading this as a 40- or 50-something, you’ll realise that it really isn’t.
What seemed ‘old’ a generation ago doesn’t any more. Just as 40 was deemed to be the new 30, so 75 is becoming the new 60, or even the new 50. Researchers say that old age should be defined as having 15 or fewer years left to live, which for the baby boomers means that they are still middle-aged until their 74th year. But are businesses accepting of the fact that people want and need to work longer?
Asked what, in his experience, were the barriers to finding employment at his age, Mr Wall said: ‘The barriers in my case are very simple – you’re 67 years old, you’ve got grey hair, and you’re in a wheelchair – they don’t want to know.
‘If you go for a job and they give the job to somebody else, so be it – that’s the employer’s choice, and I have no issue with that. But I do have an issue with the fact that you don’t throw people away based on gender, age or whatever else. This is what we do consistently as a society – we throw people away.’
Not to be daunted, Mr Wall has taken the initiative to reskill, and is undertaking a two-year course to gain his Step (The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners) qualifications. This is where Bright Futures LBG, an innovative, charitable human capital institution, was able to help Mr Wall financially.
‘Steve just wants to be economically active and support himself,’ said Bright Futures LBG’s founding director, Susie Crowder. ‘I think we’ve got a lot to do with re-educating or re-conditioning ourselves to prepare us for the future of work, because it shouldn’t matter if you’re 20 or 40 or 60 or 80, if you’re able to do the job you should be given the opportunity.
‘A lot more people are shying away from putting their date of birth on their CV as they don’t want to compromise their opportunity of getting a job in the first place. Bright Futures is finding that at around 45 years plus it’s difficult.’
Mr Wall intends to crack the two-year course in one.
‘At 67, I haven’t got two years to mess about, and it needs to be out of the way,’ he said. ‘Normally you’d do the course alongside work, but I’m hoping that by getting the qualification, it’ll lead to employment.’
With Bright Futures funding the course, what is the payback?
‘The only caveat is that if they become economically viable and can feel like they can pay it back, great,’ said Mrs Crowder. ‘Every single person we’ve helped is an investment in the future. I think there’s a lot of people on this tiny island who need help. But I believe in the next couple of years the numbers will have quadrupled. I can see it and I can feel it. We need to be strategising for the needs of tomorrow. The average grant is £2,000. Our doors are open, and the more that can pay back the better, as we’ll be able to help more and more people.
‘There’s definitely employers in the island who are open to using all aspects of human capital, whatever shape they come in. But I’ve spoken to clients who’ve been in their 40s – whatever their personal circumstances – and the employer thinks they have to invest a lot to upskill, so decide to employ the 20-something. But there’s a lot of knowledge when you’re in your 40s.
‘We have an ageing population, and we’re going to have to look at how we use the human capital in this island. The world has changed and employment laws have changed. The retirement age was set years ago.’
Mr Wall said that he had no intention of retiring. ‘We need a complete rethink. It shouldn’t matter how old somebody is – let them work and make it easier for people to work until their older.’
He is one of 46 people that Bright Futures has helped in its first year, whether financially or by mentoring or by giving careers advice. To celebrate the charity’s first anniversary, a gala dinner was held at St Pierre Park last Friday. The theme of the evening was, suitably: ‘Longevity: The Greatest Gift or a Multi-Generational Curse?’
The guest speaker was Professor Andrew Scott, professor of economics at London Business School and co-author of The 100 Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity. The book explores the premise that many of us have been raised on the traditional notion of a three-stage approach to our working lives: education, followed by work and then retirement. But this well-established pathway is already beginning to collapse as life expectancy is rising, final-salary pensions are vanishing, and increasing numbers of people are juggling multiple careers.
‘It’s like the book of life has got longer, but the chapters have got shorter,’ said Professor Scott, when we met earlier in the day with Susie Crowder.
‘I’d always give a lecture called: World Economy: Problems and Prospects and the Ageing Society. But I became more and more uncomfortable with it each time I delivered it because it’s really miserable – it just says there’s a lot of old people who can’t afford to get old, there’s health costs and pension costs, so we’ve got a problem.
‘It struck me as being intellectually constraining because economics is a really interesting subject that looks at how things change and we change in response.
‘And I was puzzled because at the heart of this is the fact that we’re living longer, and are healthier for longer, and that sounds like really good news.
‘We were so focused on there being more old people that what we weren’t focusing on is that how we’re ageing is changing. We should be celebrating the fact that we’ve kind of created a lot of extra years of life, for most of which we’re in good health and can do new things.’
So, how does this longevity translate into new thinking and new practices in the workplace?
‘You need to look at longevity and technology alongside each other,’ said Professor Scott. ‘And these two things together are clearly going to change the need to learn in later life.
‘If machines are getting more machine-like, then humans have to get more human-like.
‘Technology will clearly lead to quite dramatic changes in the job market. I think people exaggerate how many jobs will be lost from technology. But it will change what you need to do in your job and it may also change who you work for and what role you do.
‘Yes, there is a role to be had in understanding data-analytics and coding, but the majority of jobs will focus on other things. The more human skills are about judgement, creation, team work, human interaction and empathy.
‘If you think about what you need to do, what the skills are that you need to learn, you’ve got reskilling – simply, I’m doing something completely different so now I need to learn a bunch of new skills – I used to be a lawyer and now I want to be a teacher, I’ve got to learn new skills.
‘Then there’s upskilling – so, let’s say you do programming. One of the problems of learning programming is that you get out of date every five years. So I need to upgrade my skills.
‘And finally there’s transitions – in my father’s day, your identity was tied to your job. But in the world we’re talking about, you won’t be able to have that sense of identity – if you do, it’s going to cause you a lot of mental anguish when you try and change.
‘Learning how to learn, learning how to unlearn, and learning how to change are going to be quite deep skills that we need to do,’ he said.
Susie Crowder added, ‘I see part of our job as trying to encourage more and more people to invest in themselves in their own life-long learning journey. And that may be a choice between the Caribbean holiday or going to Majorca, or making a £5 saving instead of going out to lunch every day, or whatever it might be.
‘If we can encourage individuals, corporates and policy makers to change their thinking on owning some of the responsibility that they have for themselves and the wider community and economy, then that’s a really big step forward.’