Getting rid of the generation gap

With age-specific job vacancies outlawed and the retirement age failing to match life expectancy, companies should rethink their attitudes to training the older generations, says Sarah Forsey

Back in the early 1990s, it was not uncommon for companies to pick and choose potential applicants on the basis of aThis changed around ten years ago when recruiters started preferring the term “experience” as a filter, only accepting those with a specific length of previous work in the relevant field, something that still often correlated with age. Now that the Age Discrimination Act has come into force, age should have become irrelevant, but prejudices cannot be legislated away easily.

The marketing, media and advertising industries are proud of their youthful image and workforces, and are often in a position to pick and choose from many candidates when a vacancy arises, especially at junior level. This level of competition creates a buzz around the industry, giving it an air of exclusivity and making it an attractive career path for many graduates.

faster at the bottomTalent is highly rewarded and frequent promotions can enable young people to climb the ranks more quickly than in a lot of other professions. This leaves them with less to strive for when they reach the top end of their careers, creating a ceiling of 40 so often thought to exist in the advertising and marketing worlds. “People are thrown into roles in digital, for example, that they would spend much longer training for and working towards in other industries,” says Martin Goodwill, managing director at Profiles International, which provides online assessments for companies to ensure they are getting best results from recruitment and staff retention.

However, for years employers have been warned that an ageing population means there will be a talent shortage in the future, and this future is fast approaching. Currently, half the population of Britain is over 45, a third is over 55, and while the 55-plus population will grow by almost 30% between 2000 and 2020, the under-45 population will shrink by 5%. Ambitious creative industries can no longer afford to be complacent and will have to develop contingency plans to remain not just competitive, but adequately staffed into the future.

Ancient retirement PlansWhen Otto von Bismarck established the first guidelines for “The Old Age Pension Plan” in Germany during the 1880s, life expectancy in Europe was about 45 and about 50 in Britain compared with 76.9 for men and 81.3 for women in 2008. Despite this dramatic increase in projected life expectancy, there has been no alteration of the fixed retirement age, which, at 65, many believe to be outdated. The question is, if legislation changed, would attitudes follow?Age Concern and Heyday, a not-for-profit organisation for people either approaching or already in retirement, are campaigning to abolish the mandatory retirement age. They believe that as long as the legislation is in place, attitudes will remain the same.

With the current economic climate, and people choosing to have children later on in life, the fixed retirement age could have some serious implications for those approaching that age who are not in a financial position to cope with spiralling living costs. Additionally, it is not uncommon for people of 65 still to have dependants. Forced retirement could breed a generation of impoverished pensioners as well as a wasted generation of talent.

Age Concern press officer Anne-Marie Devaney suggests that if the retirement law was to change it would encourage employers to invest more in training older workers, thus updating the knowledge of senior level employees and enabling them to combine their experience with new skills. Training has to be seen as financially justifiable and as things stand, training someone who has potentially a short time left in the workforce will always be seen as a less attractive investment than training a younger person who can give more back to a company.

For the marketing, media and advertising industries in particular, problems appear to be rooted in the youthful culture and attitudes that surround them. Within these industries, there is a reluctance to give training in areas such as digital media to older employees when younger, technology-savvy graduates are plentiful. In order to retain and attract more mature workers, which will become essential in the future, this ethos needs to change. The constant supply of young candidates that has been taken for granted so far will soon dry up and attracting graduates will become a far more competitive business.

grab a gradHelen Brown, global talent director of integrated marketing agency Iris Worldwide says: “Investing in junior talent in the current climate requires a robust attraction and retainment approach around training and development. Developing a graduate scheme enables businesses to benefit from the best talent, from the best universities and get them at the beginning of their career.”

Companies will have to reassess their recruitment process, maintaining and developing their graduate recruitment, while exploring ways to source talented and older workers as well. Many employers have started using social networking sites to help them with this depending on their target audience. Facebook is a popular site among employers looking to find young individuals. The social network has an assortment of different applications that can be utilised to business advantage. Groups can be used to generate interest in a brand or simply to pool all Facebook members with a certain skill-set or ambition.

Sites such as LinkedIn have become popular as a recruitment tool for more mature and highly skilled employees. The site recently introduced LinkedIn Recruiter, a personnel-search service which focuses on helping recruiters find suitable candidates for more senior, hard-to-fill vacancies. It alerts employers to possible candidates who may not even have considered a move. This clandestine approach may become more common in the future as competition increases for skilled recruits.

Aside from the recruitment process and getting candidates on board, companies need to look at how they can retain talented staff for longer, accommodating the needs of both young and old. Most people reaching retirement are not ready to give up work completely, but having dedicated such a long period of time to the workforce, the majority will probably look for work that allows them flexible working hours. The work/life balance should be an issue taken seriously by all employers. Working parents often work on a flexi-time schedule and many are able to work from home or on a part-time basis. These arrangements allow companies to benefit from the skills and expertise of employees who would otherwise have to cease working should they decide to have children. If similar compromises can be made between employers and older employees it could encourage more people to work for longer.

the old with the newTraining will be more crucial than ever before. Older adults who choose to work past the traditional retirement age will be employed in positions requiring new technical skills and knowledge. This training must be continuous in order to retain employees. Development will be crucial in order to support and nurture staff at all levels so even the most ambitious feel challenged and motivated and will stay at work until they are older.

Profiles’ Goodwill suggests that for younger candidates it may be the skills we can’t teach that will become the most desired. Namely people skills. Generation gaps can leave a huge potential for mismatch. If a highly skilled young digital professional comes up against a more mature marketing manager, for example, client handling skills may come into question. Experience and confidence can go a long way in a pitch. It is the first rule of sales – people buy people first.

Establishing a more age-varied workforce could initially create generational gaps within a typically young business such as an ad agency. In order to address this, companies will need to focus on a lot of team-building related activity and mentoring programmes. By utilising the skills both young and old can offer each other, knowledge can be shared and respect and understanding reached between the groups. As much as companies in the industry seem to perpetually side-step the untapped resource of workers over 55, they also appear to side-step this generation as a consumer too.

Advertisers should focus more on the older generation, not just because they hold 80% of our country’s wealth, but also because the richest, fastest-growing market isn’t young, but old. The creative industries could use this statistic to their advantage, hiring a representative demographic to attract what should be, but often isn’t, their target audience.

For creative industries, the workforce crisis can be avoided if attitudes are altered and both old and young accommodate each other. A combination of enthusiasm and experience will set the standard for success, and age should become irrelevant. v©

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