Wednesday 1 October 2014

The value of older women to the workforce

Many returners believe that being older makes them less appealing to employers.  Geraldine Bedell, former editor of Gransnet, co-founder of The Family Innovation zone and author of Mothers of Innovation outlines government data and other research which firmly rebuts this view and provides encouragement and insight for returners.

Lives are getting longer: we all know that. What is less often acknowledged is that the extra years haven’t all been tacked on at the end. They've gone into the middle. Many of us are contemplating lives that look vastly different from those of our mothers, let alone our grandmothers; anticipating a phase of life after child rearing that is healthy, mentally competent, energetic and prolonged.

Women returners understand this from the inside: we know we have skills, energy, judgement and competence that make us useful to the world of employment. It’s fair to say, though, that employers have taken a long time to realise this. Even as changing demographics open up possibilities for different life stages, we still assume that key career progress has to be made at the very time we are most preoccupied with small children.

Things are changing. Clever businesses have long understood that diversity is the key to successful teams. It may have taken them a while to realise that diversity includes age but they are doing so now, and for good business reasons: it has been estimated that there will be 13.5m job vacancies in the UK in the next 10 years but only 7m young people will be leaving school and college.

Beyond the need to fill desks, many of the myths about older workers are now known to be unfounded. A recent guide from the Department of Work and Pensions* insists that older workers:

  • are just as productive as younger workers
  • are just as successful in training and learning new skills
  • take less short-term time off sick
  • offset any loss of speed – with technology, for example – with better judgement
  • are just as likely to commit to an employer

It’s understandable that women who have been on a career break assume that technology and ways of doing things have moved on. That may be true – but management of technology and of colleagues is a skill, and the point about skills is that they can be learnt, often remarkably quickly. There is no reason to suppose a woman returner is going to be much slower picking up ways of doing things than someone transferring from another company.  

What older women do bring – as enlightened employers are increasingly acknowledging – is a lifetime of skills, experience and wisdom. Increasingly, brain research is showing that what we have traditionally called wisdom is a demonstrable function of the older brain. As Barbara Strauch observes in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, we have ‘an increased capacity, as we age, to recognise patterns and anticipate situations, to predict a likely future, and to act appropriately.’

The DWP* also reports that organisations with an intergenerational workforce find that there are benefits for both older and younger staff, including opportunities for mentoring and an exchange of skills. The recent appointment of Ros Altmann as the government’s champion for older workers should help; and the demographics are in our favour. But the most important thing is that older women returners bring masses of experience, skill, discernment and sophistication. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘A mature person is one who doesn't
think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things.’ Lots of reasons to be confident, then, because that’s a pretty valuable set of attributes.

Guest blog by Geraldine Bedell co-founder of The Family Innovation Zone

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