Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Barriers to employment? Just ask the over-50s

I read a depressing document this week. PRIME (the people I did a business start-up course with last year) have put out a report called 'The missing million: illuminating the employment challenges of the over 50s'. That 'million' is the number of people over 50 they estimate to have been made ‘involuntarily workless’.

It's good that someone's raising the issue, but as Helen Walmsley-Johnson points out in a Gransnet post, they're not the first and they won't be the last and it's not worth much unless something changes.

Written by a demographic think-tank called the International Longevity Centre, this is the first of three reports looking at 'the economic barriers facing the over 50s'. Don't get me wrong, I am pleased that they are campaigning about this. But I don't think the message is a helpful one.

The report makes the economic case for needing to keep older people in the workplace (we're going to run out of young people). And it extrapolates from that the need for businesses to put more effort into keeping older people in their jobs. But it makes it sound like hard work for the businesses.

It talks about health problems or needing to look after family members. (And that might be true for some people, but not all of us.) It talks about older people wanting to work part-time to help the transition into retirement. (Do you know anyone who can afford to do that? I don't.) It talks about the need for employers to provide training for older people (because we're all too stupid to use computers, presumably). It talks, chillingly, about the need for employers to provide 'age appropriate' jobs. In fact, it makes it all our fault.

What it barely talks about is the real reason that most of us can't get back into the job market.

And you don't need a think-tank to identify the one single 'barrier' that's keeping us out of work. Everyone I know who's around my age and can't get a job could tell you what that is. And it's the one thing that's barely mentioned in this report.

Prejudice. It's as simple as that. There are so many stories about experienced, qualified people with lots to offer who can't get arrested when it comes to finding another job.

And the more that well-meaning bureaucrats push the idea that we are infirm and behind the times, the more this situation will continue. This way to the scrap heap, everyone.

Old age starts at 59. Official.

There's a really scary statistic in this report. It's from a 2001 Age UK survey looking at attitudes across Europe about ageing. In Greece, people think old age starts at 68. Across Europe, the average is 62. But the British are more ageist than anywhere else in Europe: they think that old age begins at 59. That's six years years before you can get a state pension, by the way.

I can't help thinking that organisations like Age UK are actually contributing to this by promoting the fact that their services start with people who are 55. (I've still no idea why.) If you say something long enough, everyone will believe it. And if you used to be called 'Help the Aged' and you help 55-year-olds... well, it's pretty obvious what the message is.

I know I've been lucky so far. Since I got made redundant two years ago, I've managed to make a living. But I've had knock-backs too. Stupid knock-backs, with no reason to them. So I've no idea how long the luck will last. And I've got nothing to fall back on: like many others, I can't afford a gentle transition towards retirement. Or retirement, come to that.

I don't know whether to be terrified, or just angry. I think I'll stick with angry. Who's with me?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

I went to a reunion and it got me thinking about life. Everyone else got pissed.

At the age of fifty-something, I'd never been to a reunion before. No school reunions, no college reunions. When I finally ended up going to a reunion it was for a punk club.

It was all Facebook's fault. I try not to do nostalgia: 'You can never go back' is one of my mottos. (The other's one is 'Life's too short'.) But one of my friends invited me to a Facebook group, and it was a laugh discussing questions like 'What's the best Clash album?' and 'The Stranglers - punk rock band or pub rock bandwagon jumpers?'

And others like 'Do you still feel like a punk?' and 'Who thinks they are old?' (So, it's not just me thinking about life after all - although you can usually rely on someone to lower the tone if things get too serious.)

At some point someone mentioned a reunion. And everyone got really excited. And then about a week before, the anxiety started creeping into people's posts. What do you wear to a reunion? What if we don't recognise each other?

And I started wondering: do you talk about 'then' or about 'now'?

I've always imagined that at 'real' reunions, people talk about status stuff like the number of children and cars they've got. I'd never want to do that. But I'm interested in the 'now' and 'then' of people's lives, and the connections. And as I joined in the handclaps on Do Anything You Wanna Do, I couldn't help wondering: how many of us did?

I imagine the answer for most of us is that we did some of the things we wanted to do, some of the time. My life's quite good now - I am grateful for my second chances - but it's more boring than when I was 18. Let's face it, everyone's life is more boring than when they were 18.

It's a good time to meet again: at our age, those of us who've survived have been through things and come out the other side. Everyone's got a story to tell, even if most of them were too busy partying to tell it.

And it was a bit like a real party - music (the best music), booze, people - but with the added bonus of saying 'Do I know you?' at the beginning of every conversation.

I didn't know many people back then - too shy to make friends. I'm pretty sure that I talked to some people for the first time, not in 35 years but ever. And they were nice people. I don't know what I was so scared of.

I talked to people I thought I knew, and people who thought they knew me. I failed to recognise some people I used to know. I got information overload from all the names and faces. And I tried not to revert to my 18-year-old self. Even if I did actually find myself staring at my shoes at one point. They're nice shoes, but... I'm a grown-up, I work for myself and I go to business networking events without being nervous. I don't actually want to go back to 1977.

And I shocked myself by how little I remember about 'then'. Someone asked me about my memories and I struggled to find any. There are more feelings than facts. Most of what I remember is an atmosphere, and the music.

The music was great, of course. There was dancing, and it didn't hurt til later. And there was something special about being in a room full of people my own age for a change. With no young people there to compare ourselves to, you could forget that we weren't all still 18. Some of us are stouter, most are greyer (except the bald ones and those with purple hair), but it was dark and  - for one night only - we didn't look old. We didn't feel old, either.

In short, it was kind of fun and kind of weird. And it made me think, which is a dangerous thing.  I've done the 'then' and 'now', maybe it's time to start wondering about the 'next'.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Neat, neat, neat: Teachers, tests and lies

There's a thing going round the internet. Well, there's always a thing going round the internet. It's divided opinion more than most, and nearly made me fall out with someone I love. Which wasn't nice.

It's a letter from a teacher to children in her school about not worrying about their test results. A sort of consolation prize. I think her heart's in the right place but I also think she is feeding the children a lie.

We've always been fed lies, of course. Growing up in the 60s, the lie was that we are living in a meritocracy. I was told that with brains and hard work you could get anywhere. Turned out that was only part of it. In real life, it needs brains, hard work, self-confidence, a financial safety net, and knowing the right people.

The lie is different now. The story is that achievements don't matter as long as you are a nice person. Funny, though, how it hasn't resulted in more nice people than there were before.

The lie is in this letter going round the internet. I thought it was a fake at first: it rang my bullshit detector very loudly. Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was great.  Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was awful. I did too.

It felt so phoney. I got the same feeling I get from looking/reading/listening to Bad Art. And Bad Art is one of the things in the world that makes me angry. (Yeah, I know, priorities and all that but that's just the way it is.)

Nothing rang true. The Americanisms, for a start ('neat', 'smart'). Turns out she'd plagiarised it. The sweeping generalisations (there was nothing personal about the child - so whose benefit was this for, really?). And the lies. The lie that 'there are many ways of being smart'. No, being nice is not being smart. It's a good thing, but it's not the same. The lie that failure doesn't matter. The lie that fuzzy feelings are a good thing in themselves. The lie that 'self esteem' is more important than the truth.

It reminded me of what happened during the 90s when my nieces and nephews were growing up. And children were sent home from school with certificates and badges more or less every day. For doing more or less nothing. Has it made them more confident or successful than my generation? I doubt it. Has it done any harm? Well, my nieces and nephews have turned out well as adults but I would say that, wouldn't I? I have friends, though, who work in graduate recruitment who believe they are dealing with a generation that has an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

It reminds me too of the creeping sentimentalisation of our culture. It's coming, I think, from American mass entertainment and I don't know why we listen to it because that country is not, after all, a bastion of equal opportunities.

We're getting the lie that we can all get along because fundamentally everything's lovely and everyone's lovely. Then there's the lie that all we have to do is share inspirational messages and the world will suddenly become a heaven on earth. (And anyone who challenges this is 'negative'.) And there's the lie that if you have 'a dream' you can get anywhere. You don't even need brains or hard work any more, just a wishlist.

Life is more complex, and tougher than that. The world, as today's news broadcasts are telling me loud and clear, is not a nice place, and  humans are not necessarily nice people. So why pretend?

Don't get me wrong, I hate Michael Gove as much as the next person. And I agree with the basic idea behind that teacher's letter. That tests aren't everything and there are other things that matter about people.  But there are better ways of saying it than this inauthentic, sentimental posturing. As for lying to children – I've never believed in that.