Imag(in)ing career trajectories

There’s been quite a lot of comment recently on the topic of older people working.  Several major businesses – Aviva, Boots, the Coop and others – have got together to see what they can do to increase the numbers of over-50s in the workforce, and to encourage people to carry on working beyond the official pension age.  Aviva’s Andy Briggs is the government’s business champion for older workers, and he wants to see UK companies increasing the numbers of over-50s in the workforce from 9m to over 10m in the next five years.

The arguments are quite familiar, and have been made for some time.  On the defensive side, an ageing population means that we cannot afford to push people into ‘dependency’ quite so early, especially when they are often fit and healthy.  Pension costs are a major concern.  More positively, most people appreciate the social contact that work brings, and wish to contribute in some way.  Voluntary work can meet some of these concerns, but the consensus is that demographic trends mean longer working lives.

I agree, but I’m not sure we’ve really got very far in changing attitudes.  It’s not just about ageism, though a heartfelt plea from a 72-year old in the pages of the Guardian recently highlighted how often older people are turned down for jobs on the grounds of age rather than competence.  An underlying question is how we actually picture career paths to ourselves. There is some interesting imaging to be done around what we actually think of as ‘normal’ trajectories.  Is the picture one of a line that rise steadily and continuously  over decades, followed by a sharp drop as paid work finishes;  maybe not a cliff edge, but steeply downwards?  If so, it probably means that the main aim is to flatten and prolong the post-apex phase.

But of course for increasing numbers of people, and especially women, this is nowhere near the reality.  It’s not just that young people fund it hard to start on that steady upward path.  We need a longer time-frame, and a much more diverse set of career images.  Z-form and kaleidoscopic patterns are two useful ones, but the prolongation of working life calls for more. People in the 40s and older are restarting careers, sometimes because of technological change sometimes because of family factors.  Increasingly, these are people with good qualifications and plenty of experience.  They have a 20- or 25-year period of economic activity in front of them – and that’s plenty of time for a real career with positive progression.

As I say, this is all familiar stuff.  But the images we have of ‘careers’ have not caught up with the reality, let along what might be.  The likelihood is that this both discourages and penalises older women.  It will be very interesting to see how many companies take up Andy Briggs’ challenge – and how many of them think about it from a gender angle.

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