Senior Professionals Face 'Loss of Identity'

Press   –   by Peter Whitehead; The Financial Times   –   18 September 2013

Work plays a big part in defining the identity of senior professionals, but a focus on technology-related buzzwords such as “dynamism” and “fresh thinking” are placing a greater value on youth and rapid career progress.

This, says Helen Yallop, a research Fellow specialising in age and identity at King’s College London, is “threatening cherished notions of selfhood and meaning” as people are living and working longer.

Dr Yallop, who is also head of education at Moloney Search, a headhunter, is commenting on the findings of the firm’s recent Diversity Review, a report based on interviews with organisation leaders.

She says open discrimination on the basis of age takes place in ways that would not be tolerated with other biological differences.

“In order to bring workplace culture in line with the demographic challenge, we need to recognise older workers’ value in commercial and professional terms. At present, our workplace languages and practices are woefully inadequate,” she says.

For example, a career switch in mid-life, though attractive in theory, remains difficult in practice, she says. “Recruiting patterns and prejudices suggest we think there is ‘an age for the job’. We don’t expect to see people changing careers and taking on more junior roles in their mid-life.” It risks a loss of status and authority, a resultant loss of self-esteem, and a probable cut in salary, with corresponding lifestyle changes.

The alternative, she says, involves “stagnating in the same or a similar job – eroding, rather than boosting, a sense of professional well-being”. Retirement might look attractive, but for those who value their professional identity, it threatens a “loss of self”, she adds.

The Diversity Review can be viewed at moloneysearch.com/press, and Dr Yallop is seeking feedback and comments. Email her at helen.yallop@kcl.ac.uk.

Older workers’ skills ‘wasted’
Dr Yallop’s views are in line with other research suggesting companies are struggling to use older workers to their full potential.

A survey from Towers Watson, a professional services company, finds 59 per cent of businesses are making no progress in reorganising their working environment to use the skills and experience of people working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.

Its poll of 100 senior HR professionals finds only half believe their organisation understands the changing needs of employees across their professional lifecycle.


Growing interest in graduates
At the other end of the age spectrum, demand for new graduates might be growing – a welcome trend, given the UK’s poor figures on unemployment among young people.

Evidence for this comes from the number of businesses attending the Bright Festival, an event that connects graduates with employers and that this year saw a 26 per cent rise in companies attending.

But graduates still need to be more realistic about the state of the market, according to Graduate Snapshot 2013, a report from Bright Network, a careers company, produced in partnership with Universum, an employer branding firm. Graduates’ salary expectations remain far too high, for example.

Meanwhile, younger workers who do find jobs are feeling more positive about work. A poll of 1,120 UK office workers by Hyphen, a recruitment firm, finds almost two thirds of those aged between 25 and 34 are proud to work for their organisation. Most feel their role directly contributes to the organisation’s success and that their views are listened to.

Zain Wadee, Hyphen managing director, says: “These could be signs that organisations are adapting to the different needs and expectations of a multi-generational workforce.”

Inspiring youngsters
Young people are also the target of a soon-to-be-released app, that aims to raise their career aspirations. Created by Success Talks, an organisation that seeks to inspire youngsters through talks and activities, the app will feature a series of interviews with some of the UK’s most successful individuals from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Dennis Owusu-Sem, Success Talks’ founder, says: “There is a lot of talk about the lack of positive black, Asian and ethnic minority role models – but I disagree.” The app, planned for launch in mid-October, is to include first-hand accounts from people such as Christine Ohuruogu, Olympic champion; Samantha Tross, consultant orthopaedic surgeon; Ken Olisa, chairman of Restoration Partners, a merchant bank; and Karen Blackett, chief executive of Mediacom UK, a media agency.

The organisation is also planning a series of related workshops in schools, offering courses on topics such as technology coding, leadership, entrepreneurship and employability skills.

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