Sunday, February 7, 2010

Together we can make it

This week saw the release of the much heralded Federal Treasurer's Intergenerational report 2010. One of the themes of the report is the challenges posed to this nation, as to many others, of an ageing population. Given the media reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking the older generation is dragging the country to its knees. At the well worn feet of our senior citizens has been laid the blame for the most pressing problems facing this country today. According to the report, Australia is facing escalating pressures on its social, economic, and health systems. Commentaries on the report suggest the country is reeling under the escalating burden of those among us who have the temerity to keep on keeping on, despite their wrinkles and grey hair.

One can't help but think, being so unjustly targeted as the prime cause of their country's woes, our ageing citizens may well react with escalating pressures of their own. Perhaps this is the aim. As we all know, raised blood pressure leads to cardiac crises, sudden strokes and other such nasties, which with a bit of luck may take a few more oldies out of the game and give poor old Oz a bit of breathing space.

Falling just within the demographic that could be statistically (if unkindly) defined as ageing, I am beginning to take exception to this. Philosophically speaking, we are all ageing, indeed from the very moment we spring from the womb. Some of us are however getting a lot closer to the bottoming-out end of the slippery dip, and that's the point. The tide of life is going out for us, whether we like it or not. Despite grasping at bits of driftwood here and there, otherwise known variously as Viagra, HRT, Botox, dermal fillers and the like, we will inevitably wash up at the final shore.

Articles about the societal ills this country will face over the next 40 years leave me cold I have to say, as cold as I'll doubtless be by the time 40 years have elapsed. It is only the young who can realistically see themselves dealing with the next 40 or 50 years and it's all very well for them to write about it in tones of dire foreboding. What they tend to forget is that by then they will have joined the ranks of the dreaded ageing themselves.

This I think is where the problem lies with all this blathering on about the imminent geriatric takeover of the world. Just because the baby boomers caused a demographic blip back when our parents thought the war to end all wars actually had, doesn't mean the world will grind to a halt under the weight of an unprecedented mass of oldies. Subsequent generations are, after all, continuing to have babies, even if the Gen X'ers and Y'ers wait a bit longer. Even the Gen Z'ers are probably already thinking about it. In fact the very Intergenerational report that so castigates the grey haired brigade states that Australia's population is, if not booming, definitely on the increase thanks to a higher than expected rate of childbirth. This can hardly be attributed to the euphoria of post-war celebrations this time, so one can only guess it must have been our late un-lamented Treasurer's exhortation to the nation's families to have "one for your husband, one for your wife and one for the country".

Rather than so fixedly delineating the generations, as government reports and human resource managers tend to do, perhaps it would be more fruitful to adopt a more holistic approach. Generations are comprised of individuals, who while they may share birth dates within a certain range, are equally as multi-skilled, talented and diverse one from the other as grandparents are from their grandchildren. This is not to deny the existence of generational traits which clearly manifest themselves and can be glaringly obvious in such things as choices in clothes, hairstyles, music, attitudes to sex and in a multitude of other ways. What I'm saying though is that these characteristics are not the whole person.

Like sexism, ageism sadly focuses on casting people beyond the pale, based on a small component of their identity, over which they have no control, about which a huge fuss is often made, and on the basis of which it is totally unjust to judge their worth in any context whatsoever.

I would like to suggest that rather than shuffling people into generational compartments and correlating their capacity to make a contribution or not to their span of years, we build bridges between the generations. How do we do that? Although the phrase "celebrate diversity" has become trite with over-use, that is what is needed in the fullest sense of its meaning. And as well as celebrating we need to sanction and honour that diversity.

Older people have much to learn from the young exuberance, enthusiasm, idealism, adventurousness and a hunger to question and learn. There is much to be gained by appreciating the brashness of youth, their courage to forge ahead despite setbacks, unencumbered by bitterness, cynicism or regrets. Sure, they have a lot to learn and because they never listen to our advice or warnings, we know they'll come a cropper eventually. But, that is just how you do learn and hang on just a sec, how many of us turned a deaf ear to parental remonstrations, thinking what could those old fogies know about life?

Well actually they do know something and it is precisely that richness of knowledge that older people bring to the mix, whether it's within the family or the workplace. We might not look as good as the young, but we have wisdom, often gained at a price, and too often only in hindsight. There are those wholly undervalued skills honed at the university of life, where no-one gives you a degree at the end, but you know they are there to be called upon when needed. OK, so we're getting a bit droopy here and there and we may not bound from bed in the mornings with the same zest as a Gen Y, X or Z'er, but we can be relied upon in the long haul. We have that innate knowledge that even though things can look totally black today, the sun will still come up again, eventually. None of us are saints, but mostly the edges have been rubbed away, we've calmed down, learnt patience, acceptance and compassion.

We, both old and young, would benefit from recognising that we have unique and valuable ingredients to add to the recipe. More can be achieved by working together in mutual respect and collaboration, than by pointing fingers. The aged already comprise a major component of most workplaces. Although the government has raised the retirement age and the message on the wall is clearly that we who are still working will have to keep on keeping on for longer than ever before, ageism continues to prevail. Bias against older workers manifests itself in various forms, from the none too subtle implication that they are past it, not worth spending money on to train or develop, to the refusal to pay any more than lip service to the concept of flexible working hours and transition to retirement arrangements. Apart from seriously devaluing the worth of an organisation's most loyal and committed employees, this is short sighted in the extreme.

Benefits to the organisation of respecting and accommodating the needs of its older workers should be glaringly obvious. The up and comers rely upon the wisdom, support and mentorship of older employees. Often the intellectual property of an organisation depends upon the wealth of knowledge, skill and experience, usually unacknowledged, of a handful of its older employees. If there is a mass exodus of grey power, many work places will be, not just impoverished, but crippled. There are younger workers with qualifications, that isn't the problem, although there are some who would do well to polish up their spelling and writing skills. Talented though they are, what they don't have though is experience, either in their chosen career or in life. This is the stuff that can't be measured or rated, but leaves a huge gaping hole when it isn't there. A recent report commissioned by the National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre found that the loss to the nation's economy by not using the skills and experience of older Australians can be measured, and amounts to some $10 billion a year.

That's serious bickies, and when measured across the nation's work places, would be enough you would think to make a few decision makers sit up and take notice. It's no use bureaucrats sending down recommendations from on high. Unless they have the weight of law, they can be too easily ignored. Those who deal in human resources, which, let's face it, are our most precious and indispensable resources, must sit up and take notice.

Let's get real. Let's drop the stereotypes of all the generations. Let's address the needs rather than the differences of all our citizens and learn ways of adapting to them. If we don't, we risk confronting not only an economic, social or health care crisis, but a crisis of humanity, where our young are left floundering, and our older people are disempowered, devalued and cast out on the scrap heap.