The Blog

Are We Serious About Valuing Older Workers? Lessons From Robert de Niro

On a recent flight over to the US I watched the 2015 movie 'The Intern' - not Oscar winning stuff but a tongue in cheek reminder of what embracing multiple generations in the workplace actually means.

Now if you haven't seen the movie, here's a quick summary: Robert de Niro plays 70 year old widower Ben. Bored with retirement and lonely, he gets himself a job as a "senior intern" in a rapidly growing and hugely successful online women's fashion retail start-up called About the Fit . He is assigned to work with the ambitious, "working all hours" female founder, Jules, played by Anne Hathaway - oh yes she is a working mum, with a cute daughter looked after by a "stay at home" Dad.

Every stereotype of the hi-tech start-up was in there - riding bikes in the office, constant VC pressure - along with every stereotype of the high flying working mum - including the "neglected" husband who has an affair. However, fundamental to the plot was that the "old ways" that the charming and wise hero Robert de Niro brought to the unstructured style of Anne Hathaway and her business, generated change and positive results. Whilst Ben's "ways" were initially seen as quirky, aka "old fashioned", the bright young things fell in love with and benefited from him. It wasn't just wisdom generated from tenure and experience - but the style of interaction that came with it. Whilst everything was frantic around him he demonstrated that a different way could be just as, if not more, successful. OK - it was fiction - but not without some real grains of truth.

Last year Virgin hit the headlines when they ran a Corporate Day across their organisation where everyone had to come to work suited and booted, social media usage was curtailed, flexible hours were dropped and all employees had to be at work from 9am to 5.30pm. Whilst there was a charitable purpose to the day, it was also heralded as an exercise to celebrate how lucky Virgin employees were not to work in a xxx corporate environment. I initially thought this was a really great idea, but now find myself asking if this is really embracing diversity in the workplace? In 'The Intern' Ben wanted to come to work in his suit and tie - and, despite some initial questioning from his new work colleagues, he stuck with it because for him that was important. Of course millenials are searching for a new working context - but does that mean we should assume everyone else in the enterprise is happy with permanent dress down, meetings on bean bags and unlimited holiday? Does managing multiple generations in the workplace mean it's everyone over 40 who needs to get comfortable with a working world designed to suit their younger colleagues? 'The Intern' plot demonstrates the danger of any "one size fits all" approach to cultural understanding and management. Yes, a successful culture has core foundational elements such as values and symbols; but as many start-up stories reveal, when a culture becomes a cult growth stalls - there are too many "mini me's" rather than an environment that can embrace difference to catalyse improvement and innovation.

There is one final element to 'The Intern' story which really does deserve attention - and that is the question of opening the door for people who want to keep building their careers way past 50. The "lost generations" research published in 2015 by BITC showed that of the 3.3 million economically inactive people in the UK aged between 50 and 64, 1 million had been made "involuntarily workless" - pushed out of their previous job through a combination of redundancy, ill health or early retirement. How many of these felt that the world around them at work was changing in a way that they struggled to feel they belonged to; that their ways and approaches had continuing value?

Good on About the Fit for launching a senior intern program - if only more (real-life) organisations would consider the value of bringing retirees or "older workers" in general back into the workplace. Barclays, of course, in the UK notably launched an Over 50s Training Program at the start of 2015 which garnered huge coverage in the press but not much since then. The BITC research showed that supporting greater workforce participation for "older workers" makes economic sense. It suggested that an uplift equivalent to 5.6% of UK GDP could be achieved if the economic participation rates of those aged 50 to 64 matched those in their 30s and 40s. And the research also quashed views that this would result in squeezing out opportunities for their younger colleagues.

There were some great comedy moments during Robert de Niro's intern interview - as they realised their stock questions were somewhat out of place - "Where do you want to be in ten years' time?" for example. However, joking aside, organisations do need to stand back and ask themselves just how well they are doing on age diversity. Whilst age discrimination legislation is catching up around the world - with the US having the longest standing protection - the UK clearly has some way to go. Of course, managing the value that all generations can bring to the world of work is not just about complying with legislation - it's about an inclusive mind-set. Well done to BITC for launching an award in 2015 to recognise organisations who are championing this. I am proud to be a judge of this prestigious and ground-breaking award again this year.