Are many over-50s really victims of workplace ageism? What’s your experience?
PUBLISHED: 12:08 30 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:08 30 March 2017
‘There is simply too much ageism in our society. This needs to change,’ says Aviva UK Life’s Andy Briggs
Meet Veronica Johannes-Kinsbourg – surely a “poster girl” waiting to be claimed by campaigners lauding Britain’s older workers. She probably won’t welcome me suggesting it, but it’s true.
Veronica turns 66 in early summer, but has no immediate plans to retire from insurance and financial services giant Aviva.
“I don’t feel old,” she laughs. “There are a lot of ads on the radio and TV – ‘if you’re over 65…’ or ‘get the free flu jab’ – but I don’t relate to all that in my head.”
We do appear to be a nation obsessed with youth (despite figures showing more than a third of the UK workforce will be aged over 50 by 2020) but there’s no excuse for letting stereotypes go unchallenged.
Just as we wouldn’t suggest most teenagers are workshy, nor should we claim everyone aged over 50 is a virtual dinosaur. But research has 78% of older workers claiming age discrimination exists in the workplace.
We mustn’t ever make snap judgments based on age, skin colour, gender, appearance or anything similar.
Without talking to Veronica, for instance, you’d never know what experience she brings. That she’s lived in a string of countries. That she’s had to reinvent herself, and adapt, numerous times.
You want people like that on your team.
Andy Briggs, CEO of Aviva UK Life, says “a diverse workplace is likely to create a more dynamic and productive working environment. Diverse businesses are better businesses – they make better decisions, better represent their communities and better represent their customers.
“Our ageing UK population and the widening skills gap means it’s crucial we start to shift attitudes towards older workers.”
Andy, also the Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, adds: “There is simply too much ageism, both conscious and unconscious, in our society, which is leading to fewer employment opportunities available to older workers. This needs to change.”
Research by Aviva says folk over 50 claims the odds are stacked against them. Nearly four in five are less inclined to apply for a new job because of their age and 80% think they will have less chance of getting it, compared to younger applicants.
There’s clearly work to do...
So what do we want?
Andy Briggs is calling on employers to increase the number of people they employ in the 50-69 age bracket. The target: Up by 12% in five years. That’s job opportunities for a million more older workers by 2022.
‘When I wake up, I feel I’m still in my 20s’
A chat with Veronica proves we can never see inside someone’s head and gauge the depth of their experience just by looking at them. A gallop through her life thus far:
* As a child, lived in Japan, Russia, Persia, Bulgaria, Holland and Beirut – the result of having an engineer father who worked for Britain’s embassies
* Veronica and her sister later lived with her aunt between Norwich and Beccles, and later still went to boarding school in Lowestoft
* Was a flight attendant for nearly 10 years, after joining British European Airways
* Spent just under a year as an executive PA to an adviser of the sultan of Oman. A great experience, but “Your day ended only when he had retired for the night. Very gruelling, really, and your life wasn’t your own.”
* After marrying her second husband, a Frenchman, she lived in France and America. Had son in late 1980s. When the marriage ended, stayed in the States for about a decade, having variety of jobs
* Left America in 1998 and spent about 10 years in France
* She and her son left the States with just one suitcase each. Her other belongings went into storage. “I’ve never gotten it back. I don’t even know where it is. It’s probably been on one of those programmes on TV!” (Like Storage Hunters, where long-forgotten containers are opened with bolt-cutters and the contents auctioned.)
* Her elderly aunt had moved to Norwich. Veronica was asked if she could come over and care for her. She did that for about 18 months, until her aunt died.
“I was in my middle 50s by then. I thought I’d better go and find a job, really. Prepared my CV. I think that’s probably one of the things people need to learn to do.”
Through an agency she got project work at Aviva UK Life in Norwich, which led to being taken on. Next month brings Veronica’s 10th anniversary as a permanent member of staff. Today she helps clients understand their financial options at the point of retirement. They might want to take out an annuity, or defer their pension, or take some money from their “pot”.
Her younger colleagues are good at the job, she stresses, but lots of customers do seem to appreciate finding, at the end of the phone, a voice that chimes with theirs.
“They give their date of birth and sometimes I’ll say ‘That’s the same year as me’. To me, it seems quite beneficial I’m the age I am!”
Veronica’s obviously glad to be working for an enlightened company, but says there are probably some ageist employers who skirt discrimination laws by finding other reasons to ease staff out of the door. She notices the odd bit of casual prejudice, too.
“I was watching something on TV the other night and this young girl made a reference – ‘Oh, she’s about 100 years old’ – and it was a woman of about 35 or 40! Now, is that appropriate? Aren’t you perpetuating that myth?”
What would she say to firms reluctant to allow a grey hair through their staff entrance?
“You’re missing out on a wealth of experience. Missing out on the things they’ve gone through that have given them that handle on life; that will allow them to deal with your customers in an empathetic manner.”
What might help older workers trying to land a job?
Perhaps some kind of work experience, “which would take a bit of the fear of the unknown out of it and show them what it would be like to work for that company”.
Veronica’s chary of internships – potential for the unscrupulous to take advantage of free labour – “but something where you’d get a stipend for a while to come in and have a go” might be useful.
She suspects state of mind can hold some people back. For some, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut after passing 50 “and think they’re old, and start going downhill a bit”.
To improve confidence, she’d advise trying to escape the spiral by striving to be smart and purposeful. “I know that without getting up and washing my hair and putting my make-up on… well, if I wasn’t going to work, I probably wouldn’t do that every day. It definitely makes you feel better when you do that. And putting clothes on that flatter you.”
Any more practical tips?
1. Modernise your CV. “Make it applicable to what employers are looking for now. They don’t want masses of stories; they want highlights. Clear, concise, nothing more than two pages – points where they think ‘That’s interesting. I need to talk to that person and find out more about them.’
“If you give pages, they might not want to read them all and it will go in the bin. If it’s too storylike, you’re telling them everything upfront and there’s nothing for them to get excited or interested about.”
2. Get a bit IT-savvy. “I speak to a lot of people of my own age group and it’s surprising how many say ‘No, I don’t have a computer… I don’t know how to work it.’”
Limited computer skills “I think would limit your possibilities. People need not to be scared about the internet and thinking it’s difficult to learn. I think it becomes a state of mind and they panic. Just be open-minded. There are plenty of voluntary people who help with that kind of thing” – teaching skills such as word-processing a letter, for instance, or using spreadsheets.
3. Armed with your top-notch CV, tour the temp agencies. Short-term work “is a way of getting your foot in the door and a chance to prove yourself. Take an interest in the company and see what you can get involved in to make your mark and stand out from the crowd.”