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Can you be too old to have a brilliant idea?

Thanks to @digidifferences (aka Christine Brown) for alerting us to this radio 4 discussion of ‘Can you be too old to have a brilliant idea?’

It seems it is actually taking longer and later in careers for breakthrough discoveries, particularly in science.  Though I think this assumes that time spent in a career is also a factor, so for those of use who transitioned to academia a little later in life, we might still have a way to go!

Photographic competition to find new ways of representing ageing via @britgerontology

We are delighted to learn that British Gerontology have launched a photographic competition called ‘Ageing: the bigger picture’.  (We are secretly very annoyed we hadn’t thought of that title for one of our articles!)

The competition is about: “captured the multiple realities of ageing” and seeks photographs that show a “more nuanced approach to the subject”.

In our research we often find that images of ageing fall into one of two camps – the frail and distressed vs the energetic and outdoors.  This is a theme we have started to explore in our recent work examining images of age and ageing (see Pritchard and Whiting, 2015 via publications page of this blog).  From a discursive perspective we recommend Sandberg’s (2013) account of the binary between decline and success narratives of ageing.

We very much look forward to seeing the outputs of the photo competition.

Sandberg, L. (2013). Affirmative old age-the ageing body and feminist theories on difference. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 8(1), 11-40.

Do or dye – a grey area debated via @guardian today

I’ve already tweeted a link to this article I spotted in the Guardian this morning:

I obviously wasn’t the only one interested as the article has been shared thirty thousand times and attracted over 700 comments on the Guardian site.

Within the article the construction of age and ageing is particularly intriguing, especially the comments by the hair expert consulted.  Maybe she’s just a tad biased, as the concept that anyone (read any woman) could leave their hair to go grey seemed rather alien to her.

It was great to see some academic research quoted hear although I felt that  Julia Twigg’s ideas on the construction of age could have been extended further in the article.

Still the article did prompt me to call and book a hair appointment today – but not for a colour as I am, like many others it seems, just letting nature take its course!


Age discrimination: Spotlight on The Netherlands

We look at age at work issues in a range of countries as we pick up items in our alerts that are of interest. Today’s spotlight is on The Netherlands, thanks to this item in the Equal Times, an English language global news and opinion website that covers work, politics, the economy, human rights and the environment.

Under the heading ‘Washed up at 50’, the article focuses on the human cost of tens of thousands of workers in The Netherlands who have found themselves laid off as a result of the financial crisis and ‘forced into claiming social benefits and subsequent poverty’. It seems that whilst unemployment is going down for certain groups like young people, employment is still rising for the over-45s. This is attributed to employers preferring to hire younger (cheaper) workers. The journalist says they found no shortage of older people to interview who felt they had suffered age discrimination and a number of their personal stories are included to illustrate the difficulties they face, particularly with no access to pension benefits till they are 67.

Readers in the UK will recognise some of the points raised in the article, including how some unemployed older workers have been told to doctor their CVs to downplay previous managerial experience on the grounds that this will make finding a job easier, and the political discourse that stigmatises (or worse) those who find themselves claiming unemployment benefits.

The OECD’s Missing Entrepreneurs: how ‘youth’ and ‘seniors’ fall outside the ‘mainstream’

Having written here about how the term ‘missing million’ has been used to describe both youth and mature age unemployment, we now have The Missing Entrepreneurs 2015, courtesy of the OECD. In fact this is the third of these reports with a similar title but for some reason I don’t think we had focused on them before, perhaps not looking beyond the title to discover the age aspects.

Anyway, the latest report addresses what it refers to as ‘non mainstream’ enterprise within the EU; how this is defined is quite fascinating. Basically ‘mainstream‘ enterprise is conducted in a country by non-immigrant men who have not been unemployed and are aged between 25 and 49. They are descibed as the ‘core‘. Everyone else is either under-represented or disadvantaged. So the focus on the report is on enterprise by women (of all ages), the young (15-24), ‘seniors’ (50-64), those who have been unemployed and those who are ‘foreign born’.  Obviously these are potentially overlapping categories but, even so, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the concept of the mainstream or core put quite so starkly.

The report is part of a collaboration to address policies that can make enterprise more inclusive.  At 196 pages, there’s a lot of material included comparative rates of self-employment for these different groups, breakdowns by individual EU countries and analysis of the barriers to enterprise that draws on primary research in this area.

Within the EU the report finds that ‘older people (50-64 years old) were more likely to be self-employed than youth (15-24 years old) and than adults overall (15-64 years old).  With nearly 20% of older people who were working being self-employed, it suggests that this is an important means for seniors to stay in work. We’ve noted before how enterprise has been suggested as a solution to a lack of jobs for those at both ends of their careers but particularly for older workers who can face a double bind otherwise (criticised for taking jobs from younger workers if they work or for not being economically active if they don’t).

Age norms: are these still alive and kicking in organizations?

It seems that perhaps they are, with the usual caveat about the methodology of conducting surveys. The OnRec website reports here a survey in which 34% of UK workers say that they would feel ‘uncomfortable, patronized, depressed or as though they were underachieving if they were managed by someone younger than them‘.  The survey was apparently about good and bad traits in managers and so this age-related observation is not unpacked further in the article. Nor can I track down any more information about the report which was carried out by recruitment agency Spring Personnel.

But there is quite a substantial academic literature on ‘age norms’ which is how this type of observation is generally described. Specifically here the age norm relates to the relational demography of the supervisor relationship at work. The survey suggests discomfort with the idea of being managed by someone younger than oneself on the basis that somehow this breaches work conventions and age norms. In fact, this scenario is referred to in the literature as the ‘reverse Pygmalion effect‘ and one that is becoming more common in light of demographic changes in the workplace.

In this 2009 paper in the Human Resource Development Quarterly journal, Collins and colleagues report that older workers expect less from their younger supervisors than do younger workers, and older workers rate their younger supervisors’ leadership behaviour lower than younger workers rate their younger supervisors.

One hopes that, over the last few years, this attitude might have changed as workers of all ages come to realise that perhaps age is not a useful or reliable proxy for measuring or assessing their own or other’s workplace behaviours.

Context is key: age, work, mortgages and films

Context is everything when it comes to age. Or at least, that’s what one might conclude in looking at a different age at work stories in the media.

First, there is this item in The Telegraph that reports on how building societies are considering lifting the age caps on mortgage lending in the face of increasing numbers of older home owners being unable to move or being trapped on very high borrowing rates.  This is against a background of working longer (so needing to move for work reasons) as well as a trend towards first time house purchases being made later (the average age of a first time buyer is expected to rise from 30 to 40 by 2025).

The article reports that ‘it’s not just those in their late 50s or early 60s who are struggling – borrowers in their late 40s with good incomes who intend to work into their 70s are struggling to jump through lenders’ hoops’.  So in this context, the late 40s is positioned as really rather ‘young’ to be encountering difficulty in accessing mortgage funds.

At the same time, the Daily Mail here reports how the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking a national inquiry into workplace discrimination. It has found complaints of age discrimination from those who are just 40 years old (even younger than those in the Telegraph article), suggesting that employers see them as ‘too old’.  Here, it seems to be suggested that in the context of job search, 40 is way too young to be considered ‘too old’.

Then we have the BBC reporting that Kate Winslett (who turned 40 last month) is ‘not bothered’ by the debate triggered by the 14-year age difference between her and her younger male co-star in new film The Dressmaker. Age differences between a younger actress and an older male actor are so common as to be unremarkable but here director Jocelyn Moorhouse is reported to call the casting “a cheeky challenge” to audiences. So the particular context of age, gender and the film industry produces yet a further variation in the perception of being 40, with some discursive struggle around whether this age gap is remarkable or not and why.

(Yet) another misleading article about generational differences

Perhaps I should give up reading these pieces in the popular press.  But yet again I get encouraged when I read the title and think maybe this time…..

The article in question today is in the Huffington Post by Meghan Biro who is a talent management leader.  It is titled: “The Myths and Reality of the Workplace Generational Divide” and sets out to help us understand the differences between the two.  Except it doesn’t, rather it actually perpetuates more myths and does nothing to critically interrogate or evaluate the notion of generational differences at work.  Particularly worrying is the idea that the idea that “we’re seeing a shift that addresses not just a demographic, but a mindset”.  Now I know this isn’t an academic article but to me it seems rather an omission to not define or explain what is meant by a ‘mindset’.

The real myth that needs busting here is that the sort of evidence set out in the article can tell us anything about differences between groups of people – call them generations or give them another label if you like.  The issue here is that talking about ‘myths’ and ‘realities’ in this way still suggests that there are a set of realities about differences that are useful to know in the workplace.  For example the article uses the term ‘digital native’ (“Millennials are digital natives of course”) as though this is a matter of fact, almost biological, something essential to every person born in a particular year (though which years is often unclear).  It would be more useful to recognize this as a discourse and to understand the power implications of its use.  Sadly though the article claims to deal with myths, generational stereotyping is (inadvertently I hope) perpetuated.

What can the new series of the Peep Show tell us about age and work?

OK well probably not that much I admit.  However the return for a final series of the UK comedy series has got the papers looking for life messages 12 years after the show first aired.  Perhaps unsurprisingly the basic message from the first episode is that actually not much has changed for any of the characters when you dig a bit deeper than the appearance of working in a bank or drinking juice obsessively.  Set against this is what the BBC highlights as the ‘stigma’ of being middle aged without having ‘made it’ according to certain criteria – one of which is living on your own rather than flat sharing.  There are other ‘failures’ hinted at in the first episode, particularly related to the lack of career success.  Mark and Jeremy have not gone up in the world at all, in fact they’ve barely shuffled sideways.  After all as the independent says “What makes this show glorious is that as a viewer you know that however promising things look for the lads, it will all go catastrophically wrong.”  The ageing process seems set to feature heavily in this finally series, though the way they are going there may not be much work to write about.

(I have just realised that repeatedly typing ‘peep show’ into google on my work laptop is probably storing up a whole host of trouble!)

Women and stress: the curse of the ‘do-it-all’ Generation

Both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail today on the ‘stress epidemic’ (the Telegraph) facing ‘middle-aged’ working women who are ‘cracking up’ (Daily Mail).  Cue multiple pictures of women sat at desks with their heads in their hands and images to seemingly represent the dual pressures of work and childcare.  The figures reported are based on the latest statistics from the HSE (who report of a large number of work related health statistics apart from stress).  According to the news reports this shows that “women aged between 35 and 44 in mainland Britain are 67 per cent more likely to suffer work-related stress than men of the same age”.  The figures also show that women in older age groups are also more likely to have reported a stress related condition than men of the same age.

Unfortunately the news reporting is full of generalizations about what might cause such stress, including spending less time at the pub than men.  I have been unable to download the full HSE report this morning but I doubt this features as a reported cause in their analysis.  Once again the term generation is rather unhelpful here I feel.  Stress is itself an umbrella term with a myriad of symptoms and ways of presenting, even experienced differently by the same person at different times.  To combine this with a generalization about a generation of women serves only to hide the issues that individual women might be facing.  The general discussion in the press also moves the discussion away from the work-place focus of the HSE report.  The headline reasons on the HSE webpage do not even mention gender but focus on the causes at work such as “workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support”.

It is shame that we seem to jump to gender and generational stereotypes when faced with this sort of information rather than looking more deeply at the experiences of these women and men in the workplace.


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