It’s the new job: how to grow older
Academic, author and pubic speaker, Lynda Gratton, likes to tell audiences upfront that she is 65: “I don’t have a walking stick, this is what 65 looks like.”
It’s a “get over it” gesture from a woman whose career in recent years has focused on researching the attitudes to older people in the workforce, a way of batting back the stereotyped views held by employers about older workers.
UK-based Gratton says nothing has changed around attitudes despite the value of older workers being canvassed more in journals and books like the one she co-authored with colleague Andrew Scott in 2016 called The 100-Year Life.
“It’s really disappointing, there is not much change,” she tells The Deal. “It’s just as difficult to get a job at 65 or over the age of 70.”
Which is one of the reasons why the duo — who are professors at the London Business School — have written another book, The New Long Life, released this week, and pitched as a “primer for society and a personal road map” for older people.
Their core message is that we need to stop focusing on chronological age and focus instead on biological age and the reality that we all age in extremely different ways, that in short, age is “malleable”.
With more of us living longer, the brutal truth is that more people will need to be able to support themselves for longer and that means access to work even past an age when traditionally people would retire. The demographic changes are startling: at the beginning of the 20th century, a girl born in the UK could expect to live till 53, today she can expect to live to 83; more than half of all children in rich countries will live to be 100, and so on and so on.
Release of the book, published by Bloomsbury, was delayed from June as COVID-19 hit but somewhat ironically, the pandemic has also focused attention on older people to a rare extent.
Says Gratton: “What is really obvious is that in the face of the pandemic we have chosen to save people’s lives.
“What it shows is that society, even though they might not have said that they care for older people, they really do.
“They didn’t just lay them all out and say, your time is up.”
Never at any stage did a country decide to do other than protect the elderly, she says.
Even so, the views towards older people could be tricky as we move out of COVID and move into a recession.
“One of the questions that is going to be asked is, shouldn’t older people leave the workforce to make way for the young and that is a question we have to address as a society,” Gratton says.
But that attitude is wrong because it implies there is a fixed economy, whereas the reality is that older workers can grow the economic pie, she argues.
Gratton believes that if we want to stop age discrimination, we need to look at in the same way that gender has been tackled in the workplace in recent years — via targets and the 30 per cent club (the movement to get 30 per cent of board positions taken by women). Companies should be asked how many people they employed who were over 60, for example. And then there is language and visuals.
Gratton tells of how at a recent event, the visuals on the screen used icons to show the different age ranges on a graph. The icon for one of the older groups was of a person bent over a walking stick.
Technology will play a huge part in our lives in the next few years, and Gratton says the evidence from the working from home experience showed no difference in the capacity of “digital natives” and older people.
“There are no surveys that suggest the over 50s and over 60s can’t use Zoom,” she says. “The so-called digital divide does not exist.”
Gratton says one of the biggest inhibitors to people enjoying their long lives is health.
“People sometimes ask what I have done differently between the books, and the difference is that I now allocate an hour a day to spend on my health,” she says.
COVID has also shown the importance of maintaining relationships, especially intergenerational relationships, yet the pandemic has caused our connections to shrink to people we already know.
Gratton says the evidence shows multigenerational teams do better than others so a challenge for older people, post-COVID, will be to ask: “How do I get back out there and build relationships with younger people?”