Solomons rounded off National Apprentice Week 2023 in the best way possible when our very own Carl Wright brought home the Postgraduate Apprentice of the Year Award from the University College of Estate Management’s prestigious Built Environment Apprenticeship Awards. Carl is a fantastic ambassador for Solomons and a shining example of someone who has embarked on a second career. He’s adapting brilliantly and successfully navigating his studies, job and career as part of a mixed cohort of apprentices hailing from non-cognate pathways. This is not an easy thing to do!
We’ve all experienced change to some degree in our job roles over the last few years. So, following on from Dominic Doig’s recent blog ‘Mind over matter’ – why age isn’t an issue in today’s workplace, I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and say let’s not make the mistake of thinking that lifetime learning is the exclusive domain of the young. Because it most certainly isn’t!
There has been a lot in the media recently about the ‘economically inactive’ over 50s and the Chancellor’s efforts to tempt them back into the workplace. So why is this? In reality, this call to action should give us all pause for thought. Dare I say it, but I think as a society we’ve allowed a growing under appreciation of this key employment group to fester and become a significant problem. It appears that it’s no longer the young who need ‘work champions’ but the mid-lifers – those who’ve sadly become increasingly marginalised in today’s workplace in favour of campaigns to recruit younger talent but have silently and conscientiously made a huge contribution over the last few decades to the growth and success of our various businesses.
So, putting to one side the startling statistics in the media and to bust the myth that you’re finished over 50 I’ll tell you a little story about my paternal grandfather, or ‘grandad Willo’ to me. He was not merely a grandad, he was the consummate professional, a lifetime learner and an adventurer, in my eyes anyway.
Starting out his career at Dorman Long (an icon of its day on Teesside), he had later joined the world-renowned Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) as a Chartered Structural Engineer and wore that badge with unmistakeable pride for several decades, including into retirement. Now as us mid lifers all know, ICI were pioneers of their age, evolving to become a global enterprise (a kind of Apple Inc of its time). In his early days with the company and amidst their global expansion, my grandad was asked if he’d take up a post overseas. He discussed things with my grandma and decided the timing wasn’t quite right, so they agreed he would politely decline the offer and continue in his UK post for the time being.
Fast forward several years later when his boss’ replacement came into post. This new chap made a comment in passing when discussing ICI business “I know you don’t want to work overseas Frank, I was told by my predecessor…”. My grandad was astounded! He’d not appreciated his single opt out so long ago had potentially coloured his career with ICI from that point forward and so he immediately sought to set the record straight. Only timing had stopped him previously and it was most certainly not the case that he would not consider an overseas posting.
As a result, he and my grandma soon found themselves packing up, renting out their home on Teesside and jetting off to Argentina to begin an entirely new and exciting chapter in their lives. Now from a technical work perspective I know little of what my grandad actually did out there, but what I do know is that during that time my grandma became fluent in Spanish and my grandad an ‘Engineer of the BBQ’ – a subject which proved a lifelong fascination for him, even designing his own Argentinian BBQ (which was enormous!) and setting out to build it at a local metal work class on his return to Teesside.
Why am I telling you all this? Last Christmas my mum made me a special Advent Calendar of family memories which contained the telegram my dad had sent to my grandparents in Argentina at the time I was born. It simply read; “Baby Girl. Both well.” I worked out that grandad would have been 58 and grandma 53 at the time.
It dawned on me that they’d both embarked on one of the biggest adventures of their lifetimes when many others would likely have had their eyes on retirement, a generous ICI pension and an opportunity to spend more time at the golf club. They’d done it with a passion for learning, a spirit of adventure and an openness to embrace a new culture and country. In reality they were both young at heart and had wholly embraced a lifetime learning philosophy.
In the end, this bold adventure was brought to an abrupt halt when trouble started in Argentina. My grandparents had to leave not long after I was born under a cloak of secrecy. Their 007-esque adventure, full of danger and intrigue, included money changing hands in the back streets of Buenos Aires, epic train journeys and bizarrely culminated in a mysterious trip to the Bank of England before returning to Teesside. They brought with them stories of another land and culture which they’d found exciting and fascinating which entertained us all for decades thereafter.
Why is this tale so important? I don’t think it’s the economic inactivity of the over 50s that’s the issue, but rather the inactivity and lack of appreciation (and imagination) of employers. A belief appears to have taken hold that this generation can’t shake things up, positively disrupt the status quo and embrace change. For some inexplicable reason we’ve become conditioned to think that only the young have a passion for new ideas and challenges. But we mid-lifers do too. We’re just as hungry to give something new and radical a try!
As employers, our lack of understanding and appreciation of what the over 50s can bring to the table pervades at our peril. Their openness to learning new ways of working, alongside their valuable experience and people skills, are a reservoir full of potential. It’s amazing what skills they can bring to a ‘second career’ or new challenge, when they are given the chance to take on an unexpected or exciting opportunity.
The inflexibility of today’s workplace and our investment in this age group – despite numerous labour intensive and costly programmes available to school leavers, graduates and young talent – is something we, as enlightened employers, must seek to redress. And address quickly. The ball is in our court as business leaders to create enabling programmes and structures for the experienced over 50s with the passion, intelligence, patience and determination to succeed in a new or advanced career.
We must champion equal opportunity and allow them to use their many talents to help our businesses thrive and grow in the same way we do for those in the early stages of their careers. These mid-lifers are resilient, adaptable and full of life’s experiences and we’d be stupid to ignore this seam of gold, ready to mine. All that untapped talent out there waiting for the chance to unleash their potential.
Of course, the 50+ demographic also have something that the younger generation cannot offer. With age comes wisdom, patience and a greater respect for others – an empathy and understanding of the challenges and fears scaling the career ladder can bring (we’ve all been there). Proactively promoting mixed generations in the workplace can have the potential to bring greater balance, productivity and stability to teams. At Solomons it’s noticeable that those in their midlife take great pride and satisfaction in supporting others down the levels. They share their experience to help others navigate challenges and drive their own career paths more smoothly by helping to steer a true course around and over some of the bumps in the road.
Yes, the pace of workplace change is faster than it ever has been. And yes, this can be overwhelming to anyway regardless of their age. Changing career or returning to work after a long absence, whether through things like illness or maternity leave, can also be overwhelming at first. We need to make it the norm to create the support structures in our workplaces that encourage and champion our people through these transitions, and do so with as much thought and effort as we do for younger people. It’s the very least this talented group of mid-lifers deserve.
After all, we all now know that we’re on a lifetime apprenticeship and we must embrace and celebrate learning at all ages and levels. So, let’s all power up our efforts and create workplaces where we can celebrate life experience and support those who might want to try new things in midlife – and beyond. Invest! Inspire! Ignite!
As a final thought for doubters out there who say: “This is all well and good, but we’ll only get five or so years out of them before they retire for good, so what’s the point?!’ – I say, “Bloomin brilliant!” because that’s the way of the world these days my friends. No matter what age, people have their own lives to lead and they often move on – so get used to it and step up to the table to make our workplaces somewhere where change happens at any age. The Chancellor says there is an army out there poised to act for the right rallying cry, so what are you waiting for? Let’s rally the troops!