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Marcus Downing

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What impact will abolishing the compulsory retirement age have?


"What you have to know about this session is that I am me and I am not going to change". That was the opening line of a coaching session I recently undertook. I was sitting in front of a Swiss-German senior vice president with whom I had spent the previous two and a half days (and his team) and I could see by the look in his eyes that he meant it.

"I mean, it’s a bit late to try and change who I am isn’t it?  I’m 59 – considering how much time I’ve really got left here, I just want to do the best job I can and go home to my wife and see the grandchildren as often as I can without annoying my son-in-law too much."

What he wanted me to realise was that this session wasn’t going to be like talking to one of his younger colleagues who would be racking their brains and worrying about what they are doing wrong and what they can improve.

"I’m not like that, I’m happy with who I am and how I behave. When I look for my next career move, it isn’t going to be about how I can get a promotion or a pay rise (although it’s nice to be offered). It’s not going to be about how I can work all hours God sends trying to meet some deadline, I’ve been there and I’ve done that. No, this is going to be about me being able to use and share my experience to help others in the confines of a nice, stable working environment. I’m happy to make a real contribution, to do the best I can for my people, the organisation, that’s a given. But I have no interest in taking clients or my team to the pub after work to ‘team build’; I’ve no interest in all the political mind-games and manoeuvring – it’s become tedious. I want someone to tell me what they want, I’ll go and do it and do it well and then I’ll go home.

So… what are we going to talk about?"

I asked who he had shared those thoughts with in the organisation.

"Are you joking?!" He says "No-one".


"Because, that makes you a ‘marked man’ here. It’s frowned upon as ‘lacking in drive, commitment or ambition’, which wouldn’t be true in my mind but it would become the truth around here. No way, I’ll say the right thing, do the right thing, see out my time and move on."

And he did. Seven months later, to the surprise of the organisation (he was in charge of marketing for a large insurance company). Insurance and marketing as disciplines are good bedfellows at really getting to understand their target markets and tailoring the offering into their chosen niches. One size certainly does not fit all. Yet when it came to the ’employee proposition’ one size did indeed fit all.

If workers are living longer, if retirement ages are in danger of being pushed back then how are we going to rise up to the positive challenge of having these experienced people on board for longer? How do we energise and engage them? How do we, as organisations, segment the employee proposition so that we don’t assume one size fits all?

Older workers (at the risk of talking of them as a homogenised block and I accept that we can all point to examples to the contrary) offer experience and a steady hand. Their leadership skills and experience are especially useful in times of crisis, such as the recent recession, when it is invaluable to have people on the team who have been through similar circumstances before. There are times when I would love it if certain people I knew just came in, did a good job and went home. So why is it that we sometimes overlook this population in favour of the ‘high flyers’? Or we get dragged into ‘triage’ with the problem cases? This population could be the quiet unsung heroes of our organisation. And if so, we need to be asking ourselves:

  • Have we designed the workings of our departments, our jobs, our talent management systems so that we play to the strengths of this stable population?
  • Are there opportunities for mentoring and coaching roles, progression to leadership positions that don’t mean managing people and flexible roles that allow people to develop portfolio careers?
  • Are we rewarding them in the right way? Additional freedoms maybe more welcome than a pay rise for example.
  • Have we created a culture that embraces diversity and values life and past experience?

Mark Twain once said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter."  Funny, but increasingly irrelevant?

Marcus Downing is associate director at Hay Group. For more information, please contact 0207 856 7000 or visit

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