Age of No Retirement

During the last week of April, I spent two fascinating days at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, contributing to an amazing event discussing age diversity and the challenges faced by society due to an ageing population.

On Day 1, I enjoyed a day participating and sharing my thoughts on twitter. The lovely Rachel has created a storify highlighting some of the best tweets from each day of the event, which you can find here: Day 1, Day 2 & Day 3.

After arriving and gathering in the Engine Hall, we were given a rousing introduction to the day by George and Jonathan. In particular, they focussed upon how participants should approach the design labs. They encouraged individuals to allow themselves to think creatively and holistically, to come up with solutions which were not divided by generational thinking and ideas which were inclusive and human-centred. We were encouraged to embrace ‘improv’ principles by always saying yes to other suggestions, building upon them and going with the flow. The process was a very fluid one.

Before we split into our groups, we were introduced to a sound-scape which discussed differences between generations and what it meant to be old. Voices had been recorded in response to different questions about age and retirement, gauging the public’s view on the topic. It was interesting that you could hear different opinions, but could not always tell how old someone was. There were issues raised about entitlement and expectation. It certainly served to get discussion rolling when we went into the first design lab of the day, which was focussed on intergenerational diversity and challenging generational attitudes.

I joined the Blue Group and we had a really interesting discussion. The topics of conversation were broad, but there was some consensus about how assumptions and stereotypes about different generations are often a negative thing and not a true reflection of reality. There was a discussion about what it means to be ‘old’. There was a mix of voices, although I would say a lack of younger representation, which I think Tim Scott pointed out was perhaps due to the connotations associated with the word ‘retirement’. Some people shared their own experiences. Others talked about the problems faced by society or in their workplaces. There was a lot of energy.

In particular the discussion often focussed upon flexibility at work and how this would benefit all people, not just those approaching retirement. There were discussions about how phasing retirement could help to retain skills and provide a gentler end to people’s careers. There was talk about entrepreneurship and how many ‘older’ workers were starting their own businesses, but also that there was a lack of support for older people to do so, compared to what was available through organisations like The Prince’s Trust for younger workers.

After the initial debate, we split into three smaller groups to discuss our ideas for solutions. A few ideas had come out of the initial discussion including changes to outplacement provision for older workers who may be made redundant and otherwise considering ‘early retirement’. There was a discussion about work taking place in the NHS to ‘bring back consultants from the golf course’ to act as mentors and support for more junior members of staff, providing support on more complicated cases where their considerable experience and expertise gave them an advantage. There were also suggestions about how to help older entrepreneurs to start their businesses.

My sub-group came up with the idea of a website designed to support people making career transitions. Be that someone who has just been made redundant and looking for their next role, someone who had taken time out for childcare reasons but may be considering going back to work or someone looking for a change of career for some other reason. The website would provide information on options at each of these key decision points in life and provide sign-posting to other support and organisations that could help in these situations. We were keen for the website to be designed by the community for the community and to draw upon real-life experiences using case studies. We also had the idea that it would learn from your preferences and skills perhaps in a similar way to the careers site Plotr, but aimed at people at any life stage, not just the young. I think there is a lot of potential in this idea and I’d love to see work happen to make it reality. The internet is full of information, but if you are going through difficult changes in your life, it isn’t always easy to ask the right questions or know where to look. Having a resource which will help you work through these questions in your head and understand your options could be really helpful.

After we had drafted our ideas, the three sub-groups came back together to describe them to the rest of the group. We were a little pushed for time, so we did not have the opportunity to select the best idea and develop this further to complete a final prototype as a group, but there was enough of a start on each of the three drafts to create something which may be more tangible. I think all three ideas had potential and I’d love to see the ideas developed further.

After lunch, we were introduced to another sound-scape before we headed into our second session of the day. This time I was in the Orange group, facilitated by Sandy. I can remember less from this session than the first and I must admit that at the time I found it a slightly frustrating experience. There was an awful lot of interesting discussion, but ideas for solutions were somewhat ‘woolly’ and there was a lack of practical suggestions coming forward from the group.

Our topic was titled “is the age sector driven by ‘old thinking’?” which was a controversial topic, but one we strayed away from during the course of discussion. Again, the conversation mainly focussed upon the workplace and flexibility. There was a lot of recognition that traditional talent management processes were failing people in organisations. There was concern that HR only thinks about how to fill boxes on a chart rather than thinking about the people they have and how to develop them to reach their best potential. There was also recognition that we need to start thinking about retirement and age a lot sooner during people’s careers. Finally there was acknowledgement that these issues are affected by the whole social care, welfare and employment systems and it was no use looking at each of these factors in isolation.

Our prototype from the orange session had a great title, ‘Ageility’. The idea was about helping employers to be more agile around the topic of age, providing a tool kit which would help them to manage retirement and talent management more flexibly. The only issue was there was no agreement from the group about what this would entail and how it could practically be created or funded. More work will be needed to turn ‘Ageility’ into a reality.

At the end of the session our prototypes were returned to the Engine Hall and put on display for other groups to see and we left the event tired after an interesting day of debate and excited about the prospect of another day of design and discussion to follow.

On Day 2, I returned to the museum slightly soggy after being caught in a hail storm on my way to the venue. I was looking forward to facilitating and found myself in charge of the yellow group all day.

My first session was titled “0-100: What skills, education and support do people need to survive a lifetime of a century?”.

I led an interesting debate, inspired by both the morning’s sound-scape and the discussions that had already taken place over the previous day. It was interesting to see as the group naturally found a solution built around the idea of placing education at the centre of communities. Inspired by stories from the Netherlands and Germany, where students have been living in residential care homes to provide companionship to older people in return for cheap accommodation or where a professional orchestra has moved into a school and this has had a profound impact upon educational attainment, we were looking at ideas which would integrate education into life and allow young and old to mix more freely.

The group started to design a planned residential community, which was centred around a life-long learning centre, designed to integrate school, university and adult education in one building, with housing located around this central point. The idea became a somewhat utopian housing development, drawing upon ideas of the garden city and the quaker-led model villages of Port Sunlight (Unilever), Bournville (Cadbury) or New Earswick (Rowntree) and aiming to encourage interaction between different generations to create an integrated community. I had the joy of drawing the group’s ideas with my collection of multi-coloured Sharpies and aimed to bringing them to life on our prototype page. We managed to finish ahead of schedule and had created a wonderful community for multiple generations. If only it was that easy to turn into a reality.

From a facilitator’s perspective, the second session was much more challenging. We were meant to look at the question “Can employers afford to keep older workers, who have become accustomed to regular salary increases?”

The question was very controversial as the group felt that the situation posed was fundamentally wrong. They felt that no one in the recent economic climate was used to regular salary increases and they thought that in many sectors employers couldn’t afford to NOT keep older workers, as there was a huge need to retain the skills and experience of the older generation. So instead we changed our focus and decided to look at how we could help employers to understand the value of older workers, instead of always viewing them as being more expensive or less productive than others.

We had a couple of ideas which arose during the discussion. The first was a radical shake up of pensions, benefits and savings systems and was a really interesting concept, but one the group was reluctant to take on into a fully formed prototype. It drew upon ideas from the current welfare state around national insurance contributions, but the aim was to make these much more flexible and personal, rather than the current situation, which amounts largely as another form of taxation.

This idea was that you would be required to pay into a ‘life-long living’ fund whenever you worked – this would be partly made up of personal contributions, matched with employer contributions and also supplemented with state contributions which would be invested. You would be informed of how much was in this fund at different stages in your career and then when you wanted to reduce working hours for whatever reason e.g. maternity, phased retirement, sickness etc. you would be able to draw upon this fund to replace your working income. Whatever was left in the fund at the end of your career or when you wanted to retire, would then be your pension. Of course, this would need a lot more thought to ensure it didn’t disadvantage those who had more time off for sickness, chose to have more children or were unable to work for whatever other reason, but the suggestion was that we shouldn’t see welfare, maternity and benefits each as separate things, but actually that we should be flexible about when and how we work throughout our lives. I was disappointed that the group didn’t want to explore this idea further, as I think it had great potential, but there was a feeling that perhaps the challenge was just ‘too big’.

The second idea was an information campaign for employers about valuing older talent and how to retain older workers. This wasn’t really a fully-formed idea, but the group felt strongly that helping employers, particularly SMEs to understand the value of their employees was particularly important. There was uncertainty over whether this should be a marketing campaign, a training course or some other programme and also about how this could be funded, but overall there was agreement that employers needed support in this area. Again there was widespread concern that HR’s talent management processes were not fit for purpose and we needed to step up as a profession to improve this situation. It was this idea we decided to take forward into our prototype.

As the second session of the day drew to a close, we shared our final prototypes and reflected on a great two days of design. A group of facilitators and organisers headed to a local bar afterwards to reflect and I got chatting to one of the co-founders Jonathan about some other areas to be explored. I think more needed to be done to ensure a wider range of voices attended the event – unfortunately although anyone was welcome to attend, the audience was self-selecting and although diverse in some ways, there were many groups which were under-represented, in particular those from minority ethnic backgrounds and the younger generations. Another area I felt was under-represented at the event was how these issues affected people in rural communities. Having an event based in Manchester, meant that most people there lived in the city or the suburbs and many of the issues discussed were profoundly urban problems. A few times the differences between London and Manchester were raised and I think even more profound would be the difference between town and countryside. The industries and professional communities that were represented by attendees faced different succession and talent issues to those that might be experienced in agriculture or horticulture. I often feel that these groups are under-represented within the business community and that the voices of those in the countryside are often drowned out by the more vocal communities in the cities. Politics too doesn’t always represent the needs of rural communities – Whitehall is a long way from rural Herefordshire where I grew up and so often policies from Government fail to understand the impact they would have upon these groups. I would love for the Age of No Retirement to try and tackle this. Perhaps holding a similar event in a rural town would bring up some interesting discussions and new ideas compared to the event in Manchester. How does the farming community face up to their ageing workforce and handle the issue of retirement? What happens when a tenant farmer is no longer able to carry on farming? What about the young people who are forced to move away to the city, because they can’t find jobs or afford places to live? How can we tackle these issues in the context of the Age of No Retirement? Still many questions to be answered.

Sadly I wasn’t able to make it to the third day of the event. The final day was given over to story-telling, sharing examples of best practice around age diversity and aiming to inspire people with their ideas. There were examples from Barclays who discussed their Silver Eagles programmes (apprenticeships for over 50s) and work done to improve digital literacy in the older generation and discussions about pensions and more. I think those that attended found it a really enjoyable event and I was disappointed I couldn’t make it.

Overall I was really proud to be part of this inspiring and forward-thinking event. It was a great few days and raised so many ideas, questions and possible solutions for many important challenges our society will face over the coming years and decades. I just hope the message can reach more people and some of the prototypes can be turned into reality.

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