He has a beard, likes jazz and earns a living in the digital economy. But this tech worker isn’t a hipster, he’s a granddad – and he’s the employee of the future.
In most developed nations, older people will soon represent the majority of workers. In the UK alone the over-50s will account for over half the workforce by 2030.
We are also all living for longer, which will force people in their late fifties and early sixties to re-examine traditional notions of retirement.
“There are people who theorize that the first 150-year-old is already alive today,” said Tata Consultancy Services UK and Ireland corporate affairs director Jim Bligh at the IT firm’s latest Spark Salon event in London, which focused on what the digital era means for older workers.
Despite the need for older workers, many over-50s struggle to find work.
Mary Bright, senior manager at the insurer Aviva, said older women are six times less likely to be selected for a job interview than a younger person, and older men are three times less likely.
“Ageism is the last permissible discrimination,” she said. “It’s how women were treated in the 1950s.”
However, Aviva has found technology may help overcome human bias, Bright said. “What we are looking at is that the technology can select on skills and aptitude, not on the face and the visual presentation of the person.
“Technology may be less biased than humans and be a tool to help more diverse recruitment.”
Older people often choose to stop working because they feel they don’t have the skills, it’s “time to make way for someone younger”, or they need more time for themselves.
But Jenny Lincoln, age research and policy manager for Business in the Community, said technology can help as it gives older people the flexibility they need about where and when they work.
“There are certain issues associated more with being over 50, such as having to go to health appointments or to respond to your elderly parent, which require employer flexibility,” she said.
While employers will need to ensure their older employees can adapt to today’s workplace, they may also bring some of the skills most needed for the digital age. Countless studies point to the importance of the soft human skills that cannot be replicated by technology.
“Yes, we will need people who can code or understand and create technology, but we will also need people with the human skills that technology can’t yet replace,” said Lincoln.
“Empathy, public speaking or the ability to influence people, and customer service – these types of soft skills will be increasingly sought after.”
This view was supported by Wing Commander Sarah Maskell, head of diversity and inclusion for the Royal Air Force, who said it is a statistical likelihood that the older people get, the more likely they are to have had the life experiences needed to develop soft skills.
Aviva is already harnessing technology to help put older people’s soft skills to work in their call centers.
Much of the insurance claims process is now automated, meaning that those on the phones require few technical skills. Instead, Aviva’s customers need an emphatic voice on the phone, Bright said.
“We speak to about one in five families in the UK undergoing bereavement,” she said.
“We also speak to people every day who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We have skilled, experienced, empathetic people [in our call centers] and that’s who we want to recruit. And we found actually that, quite often, older people that we recruit are really good at that.”
The accepted model of people having a career for life seems increasingly outdated. “The choices are not the same as they were,” said Bright.
“In the industrial revolution, people worked until they dropped. Then in the 20th century, we got to this, learn, work, retire’ [model]. Now, in a 100-year life, maybe it’s something like, ‘learn, work, have a break’. Then maybe, ‘learn something else, do something else, have another break’.
“People can continue working and contributing well into their 70s, and enjoy doing it because they’ll be able to continue learning about the things they love.”
Agent for change
After 20 years of teaching, Kemi Oloyede decided it was time for a change. An art and textiles teacher, Kemi wanted to put her creativity to use in a different way.
Today she is the owner of two online clothing brands, Kezziahs wardrobe and Recyclothes.com, and is creative director of the Sew London Project, where she teaches people to repair, improve, upcycle and sew their own clothes.
“On my 50th birthday, I got an iPad,” she said. “I remember sitting there, and my son saying, ‘mum, how are you going to use this?’”
Thanks to her son’s tuition and online and community digital skills courses, today Oloyede uses the iPad to design wedding dresses, create portfolio designs for clients and other business transactions.
“This is the future for older people,” she said. “They will stay longer in work. I for one know that, initially, it was hard for me to accept change. Now, I embrace it. I love everything about tech now.”