Together We Can Make It

Written Feb 2010

This week saw the release of the much heralded Federal Treasurer‘s Intergenerational report 2010  It focuses strongly on the challenges posed to this nation, as to many others, of an ageing population. As it should.  Thanks to the demographic blip of the post-war baby boom, we’re seeing an unprecedented increase in the proportion of the population entering the ageing years.  Undeniably, this will precipitate huge social, economic and other pressures that will affect everyone.

Despite acknowledging this, it shouldn’t be inferred (as some in the media seem to have done) that the older generation is dragging the country to its knees.  Some commentaries on the report suggest Australia is reeling under the escalating burden of those among us who have the temerity to keep on keeping on, despite their advanced years.

Falling within the Baby Boomer generation, I am one of those senior citizens who may soon be milking the health system for all it’s worth.  I take exception however to being singled out because of my age as being a weak link in the chain.

From the moment we emerge from the womb we are all unequivocally ageing.  Some of us have many years to go before ageing will mean anything to us other than the hypothetical, while others are getting closer to the bottoming-out end of the slippery dip. Whether we like it or not, the tide of life is going out, slowly but inexorably.

We won’t be the ones grappling with the societal ills the country will face over the next several decades because we won’t be here.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about finding solutions to the inevitable dilemmas.  With our wealth of life experience and skills in many fields, we are just as well placed as the young to search for solutions.  Those of younger generations however who write about the future in tones of dire foreboding, lamenting the assaults of the ageing generation on their potential quality of life, should remember that by the time that future arrives, they will have joined the ranks of the ageing themselves.

This I think is where the problem lies with all this conjecture about the imminent geriatric takeover of the world. Just because so many of us were born 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 report that speaks so alarmingly of the inroads of the grey haired multitudes, states that Australia’s population is, if not booming, definitely on the increase thanks to a higher than expected rate of childbirth.

Rather than polarising the generations, it would be helpful 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 are often glaringly obvious in such things as choices in clothes, hairstyles, music, attitudes to sex and in a multitude of other ways.  These are however little more than cultural differences.  They don’t make the person.

Like sexism, ageism casts 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 worth 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’s 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. Youth is characterised by brashness, courage to forge ahead despite setbacks, unencumbered by bitterness, cynicism or regrets, and these are qualities you need to succeed.  We of the older generation have always said the young 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’s just how you do learn and how many of us in our time turned a deaf ear to parental remonstrations, thinking what could those old fogies know about life?

Of course our parents did know something, and now so do we.  And it’s 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. We may be getting a bit droopy and we don’t 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 understanding that even though things can look totally black today, the sun will 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.

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 those of us who are still working will have to keep 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 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’s no shortage of 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 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.

This should be more than enough to make 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 assets, must sit up and take notice.

Let’s get real. Let’s drop the stereotypes of 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

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