29 December 2014

Why over 50 is too late


I’ve been waiting to comment on this story and press release regarding a new UK government “fundamental reform” (promoted as a jolly, we can mend everything tale from the pre-Christmas bulletins, some might say), setting it aside from the hyperbole surrounding it and having read through the various responses posted on news outlets. It is so closely related to the trade union funded and freelance work I do and I wanted to scream when I first read what I felt to be a patronising, disengaged and ageist approach (what that the policy purports to stand against).

Here is the press release in full: Fundamental reform to fight ageism in the workplace: older workers’ scheme to tackle age discrimination. We are promised a “a world-leading new approach” so hold onto your hats blog-readers, what follows may shock you! 

Change on the way?

I regularly work with older adults in employment and (through SUL funded projects) adults in employment who are facing a very real possibility of redundancy in later life or after their career has been well established in a certain field. I read this new story and I was irritated; it highlights so many things that are wrong with how we perceive older workers and it highlights a lack of understanding of the importance of all age / adult career guidance and when it should take place. I'm going to try to be positive though…

In the BBC article, Esther McVey references “training in CV and interview skills, the internet and social media, as well as "career reviews" with an expert to identify skills from previous work and any training needs.”

An Expert is on the way! No mention of any external organisations or businesses in the policy or in any of the media reports so we shall wait to find out whether this Expert may be drawn from the membership of the CIPD or perhaps be an established HR professional, maybe a qualified career guidance counsellor or a representative from business. It can’t possibly be a civil servant on a secondment with a few weeks of training because it is going to be an Expert. 

OK, I did say I was going to try to be positive. I look forward to finding out when this policy is streamlined into practice whether it will it be delivered in sessions covering options such as career planning strategies, career changes, life journeys, retirement planning and using counselling techniques, addressing an individual’s perception of what is possible, drawing on their transferable skills, explaining the differences between hidden and open jobs, discussing labour market information? These are amongst the topics I cover with staff in the workplace when delivering employability skills and career planning workshops. Hey, I could be one of the Experts the government could employ to delivery these courses, because I’m doing it already. I even have qualifications and a proven track record in this role. But this isn’t an extended and rather obscure job application for the role McVey and her colleagues are creating. 

Computers!

McVey says the policy is about tackling outdated views and stereotypes. Brilliant, I thought, when I first saw this in the headlines and read on, interested to find new approaches to inform my own work. Then we get to it: computer training. Yes, computer training! Imagine that! Because people over 50 can’t use computers! I don’t personally know anyone (and I’m including people who have been away from the labour market for a very long time) who is over 50 and of working age who can’t use a computer but I appreciate that there are people who can’t. However, while most over 50s (and indeed many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s?) might not be able to use a computer as well as a primary school aged child, I also know plenty of under 50s who can’t sew on a button, work out how to maintain or repair household appliances or boil an egg. Let's just think about it: in how many cases is “being unable to use a computer” the sole reason stopping someone getting a job? How many of your colleagues have little more than the basics and use Caps Lock instead of Shift when they need one capital letter? Knowing keyboard shortcuts isn’t the answer to everything.

There will be training on the internet and social media for those who need it. Social media can help you find employment opportunities and in specific fields a LinkedIn profile can get you a job. But this isn’t how the majority of people find work and it certainly isn’t the key to performing well in an interview or making the most of your existing skills on an application form. It is how the majority of people waste their hours away and spend their leisure time and for most the only bit of social media training you need is this: make your personal pages private and have a smart LinkedIn page if you want one because in this day and age, potential employers will Google you. If you have the ability to set up a facebook profile then you have the ability to make it private. I’ve just covered social media, for the majority of jobseekers, in two lines.

Tackling stereotypes

I have wandered off. What I really wanted to say was that my big issue with this policy isn’t with its yet-to-be-revealed delivery, it is with the wording surrounding it. Let’s look at McVey and Webb's statement:
As part of our long-term economic plan, our champions will tackle outdated views that older workers are somehow ‘past it’ so that more people get the security of a regular wage in 2015.
Yes, in a policy designed to steer employers and the workforce away from negative perceptions, they've used the term “past it”. One of the things I talk about in application writing and interview skills workshops is not to compare yourself to a negative idea but to compare yourself to something proactive and positive. 

Dr Ros Altmann, the Government’s new older workers champion’ goes a step further with the negative language: 
I’m so pleased the Government is going to do more to help these people, who are too often consigned to a scrapheap, jobs-wise, when they just need help to retrain or cope with modern job searching. Daily Mail Website*
A full-on image this time! Let’s all imagine a scrapheap and pull those over-50s out of it!

Could the government please stop using terms like past it” and “scrapheap” to describe older people who are out of work? It’s offensive and creates a negative image and perception of the 1.2 million person mass of out-of-work over 55s. 

My answer: (in-work) career information advice and guidance

Why do older workers struggle after they lose their jobs? It is simple. We do not support enough in-work employability training. If an older worker loses their job, they will find it harder to find a new job. There is no point treating the problem, if we do not research and tackle the cause of the problem. We can avoid sending folk to jobs A&E through a much cheaper and beneficial to all preventative lifestyle.

Workers are often told that the best place to find a new job is while you are in work. It is also the best place to develop an understanding of your career and employability. Workplaces should offer in-work employability training and career planning either via HR or through external agencies. We should ensure that people of all ages, not just those in target groups can speak to a careers adviser when they need to, or access employability skills training. We need a culture of lifelong career management. This is what the career guidance community promotes. We aren't regularly funded to do this though. If an individual wants to improve their employability skills or see a careers coach/adviser, they have to do it in their own time and more often than not at their own cost. 

I welcome that there will be more help for the out of work over 50s, but this isn’t a fundamental reform, a fundamental reform would see a much earlier intervention and in-work support for lifelong career planning. 

*Sorry. 

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