Ageism, realism and working life in the twenty-first century

My starting point

Lake District work opportunities

As many of you may know, when I lost my job nine years ago I came to realise that at the age I was, I was not allowed to have another employment. I was too old, by which I mean I was somewhat over forty. It took a while for me to understand that was the problem. For a while I laboured under the illusion that there were not many jobs about and that was why the recruitment agencies had trouble finding me interviews. Ageism is a bitter pill to swallow, as many people who have just come out of employment will be finding out.

My solution

Realistically, the only way I could earn a living was to start my own business. That is why I call myself an “accidental entrepreneur”. I have actually set up several businesses because I had to get money coming into the household. I had a specialist field from my employment days, but I also had to do whatever it took to try and achieve some inflow of money.

Over the years since and especially at the beginning I had various short term contracts and also took subcontracted work from another firm. Effectively the services I provided have helped businesses to avoid taking on an employee. I had no security in doing what I did.

Two of the firms I helped just told me they didn’t need me any more, one with no notice at all; I had no expectations of a continuing presence with them so I had to shrug my shoulders and move on to the next assignment, and of course I had been steadily building up my own business and individual clients. My business is both B2B and B2C, to use the jargon. It is a long while since I had to depend on just one or two clients for an income stream. Nowadays I subcontract quite a lot myself. It is an efficient way of doing things.

The ageist job market

Not much has changed since I left employment for the last time. If anything, the work market for older people is much worse. There is legal protection against age discrimination within an employment but once a reason for redundancy is identified or contrived there is little an employee can do.

Age discrimination in the job market is hard to prove. One can be annoyed by an ad such as the technical writing opportunity for a “newly qualified” person I saw yesterday. Newly qualified? We know what they mean.

Older people want to work. They are just not allowed to be employed, as Julian Knight reminded us the other day when writing in the Independent. Apparently there are those who think that older workers are just standing in the way of the young. I agree with the hypothesis that a younger manager would rarely think to take on a person twenty or thirty years older because

  • the person will be too slow
  • the person will be off sick a lot
  • the person will show up the manager by knowing more and being better than he or she is

We know that most “old-hands” would take fewer sickies, be as quick as anyone and know better than to embarrass the manager, but these prejudices remain.

The work market of the future

I don’t claim to have second sight, but since I started my businesses I have ploughed the furrow which many others have to do or will in the future. Realistically, the bureaucratic burdens on employers and their prejudices over age will need them to be more interested in taking people on short-term ad hoc contracts where there is no long term commitment on either side. The current employment laws both on the HR side and in relation to tax do not match up yet, but Seth Godin said recently “In the post-industrial revolution, the very nature of a job is outmoded.”  I agree with that.

I think that employment rights are going to have to be watered down to relieve the employment law red tape mess that businesses have to suffer. In the future, there will be no such thing as a job in the old sense, and there isn’t even now for many over-forties, which is why so many of us are already out there in the brave new twenty-first century. There will be more mobility, which surely is a good thing?

How do you feel about this?

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Did you miss the boat?

Don’t rue your luck

Nr. St. Brelade, Jersey

Recently I have witnessed people publicly regretting that they did not manage to create a worldwide on-line network before Facebook appeared. Why didn’t their big idea grow the way Facebook did? The fact is that hard though they worked, and entrepreneurial though they were, Messrs Zuckerberg and co were very lucky in simply being in the right place at the right time. The right time was neither before they planted the seeds or afterwards, but exactly at the time they happened to start. That’s life.

Others may think “should we have sought venture capital rather than going alone? Should we have asked for support from this media person or that?” It doesn’t matter. The time has gone. We need to deal with the present.

We all make “mistakes” in our working lives. Sometimes we can benefit from them and learn. Just over ten years ago I left a comfortable but boring job with a large accountancy firm to go for what looked like a more interesting opportunity with a niche consultancy. I was warned against it by my then boss. “You will regret it” I was told. “They don’t treat their staff with respect.”

Being fired

Of course I didn’t pay attention. I took the new job. Thirteen months later I was given fifteen minutes to clear my desk when I had been under the impression that I was giving a presentation on the firm’s latest ideas to an invited audience in Jersey the following week. I had been puzzled that my flight and hotel accommodation had not been confirmed.

No regrets

My departure from that firm cast me into the world of self-employment. Do I regret joining that consultancy? No, it was the right decision at the time. I enjoyed the work hugely in that thirteen months. It boosted my confidence. I realised that I was very good at what I did, which I had begun to doubt having been starved of quality work at my previous employer.

We cannot dwell on what might have been. As independent business people the future is more in our hands. We may think sometimes “suppose I had accepted this offer or gone for that contract”. Such thoughts are a distraction and no more useful than wondering about how our lives might have been had we stayed with a past girlfriend or boyfriend.

Our past experience is how we learn to plan the future of our business. We just keep getting back in the saddle, and as business owners, at least the horse belongs to us.

Don’t look back. Does this ring a bell with you?

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Fifteen ways to get unfollowed and disconnected from my network

Google Appliance as shown at RSA Expo 2008 in ...

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Or just not followed in the first place

  1. Tweet advertising the whole time
  2. Tweet other peoples quotations
  3. Tweet religious tracts
  4. Tweet political comments and unkind comments about politicians.
  5. Tweet every meal you have (occasional food comments or pictures of dishes you are pleased with are OK).
  6. Send a request to connect on Linked In to get my email address to put me on your mailing list.
  7. Tweet on automatic from RSS feeds that have nothing to do with you just to please Google, Klout and Peer Index. Actually both Google and I will go off you.
  8. Tweet in a company name and not tell me your real one.
  9. Auto-feed absolutely every comment, tweet and link.
  10. Never RT or pass on someone else’s link.
  11. Never have a conversation or interact
  12. Swear (even with an apology)
  13. Rubbish a competitor.
  14. Be rude about anyone at all.
  15. Criticise fellow networkers even if they deserve it.

Now, everyone is entitled to their political views, and their religious beliefs. Just spare me, please. Be original, help others and don’t be lazy or disrespectful. It seems not much to ask. What do you think?

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The Daily Culture Shock

A great chippy

If we use social media in our marketing, we can easily get distracted by the latest fashion or the latest scare story. It can all get very confusing.

You know what I think of Klout and its ilk. I think Klout is a fun toy, but as a measure of how much noise we make it is hardly useful in measuring our on-line influence. The measure of that will be in how much engagement we have from our friends, followers, call them what you will, and ultimately in a business setting, how much pay-back we get from giving as much as we can. That sounds a bit mercenary, and I have some lovely friends I have met through various websites and platforms, but most of the time I commit is related to my need to market. OK, I admit to enjoying new friendships and straying from business matters.

Still, we cannot keep worrying about every new story such as whether Facebook will achieve world domination. Have you heard that one? Could we be totally reliant on Facebook for every human interaction, financial, business, social or in every other way? That is quite amusing in reminding me of the short story by E M Forster, written over a century ago, “The Machine Stops”. Would the world end if Facebook collapsed after taking us all over? You can download the story here.

The world changes and I have no idea what the on-line world will be in five years time or even twelve months from now and nor does anyone else.

In the Sixties, Woolworths was a successful business where one could by anything cheaply and the only fast food was from the fish and chip shop. The food was wrapped in newspaper and it was the only chance I had to see the Daily Mirror, which was frowned on by my parents. It was a greasy read though. My parents did not approve of the Beano and the Dandy either so you see what a strict upbringing I had.

Back then, going to an Italian restaurant would have been the height of chic (mixing two countries there) and there were simply no other cuisines available.

We had absolutely no idea what the next best thing was going to be, and we were swept along by events such as the Vietnam War and the pop culture and in my case the modern rock and folk culture.

We are still swept along. Back when I was growing up we didn’t worry about every new fashion or embracing every sort of movie or music. We chose what we wanted. That is what life is like.

Not worrying about certain on-line tools is not going to be fatal to our businesses. If something has legs for us, test it and see, but don’t dive in just because everyone else has. You might be wasting your time. See how they get on if you are not sure. If you fancy it, have a go. It is OK to be an early adopter. I had a ZX81. It was brilliant. I taught myself Basic and then DOS. Yes, I have a geek streak. However, you don’t have to adopt any and everything.

I believe that striving to have a high score on some index can be compulsive, like gambling or gaming. As a licensed radio amateur (ham) I have chased high scores for contacts and distance so I know what it can be like – a serious distraction from what we should be doing.

Of course what we should be doing is marketing our business and having fun doing it, and not striving to keep up with the Joneses. Follow your own instinct, not that of the chattering classes. Don’t you agree?

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Giving our time to our loved ones and ourselves

Braun HF 1, Germany, 1959

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The other day I talked about giving time, but it was not a lecture for anyone, but more of an observation as to how some do and some don’t. I work hard on my business mainly because I enjoy it and get real satisfaction from having satisfied clients. I enjoy nearly very aspect.

I do think it is important to have family time, though, and to have a bit of fun, even if it is watching favourite TV programmes with my wife. I wouldn’t criticise others who don’t believe in watching TV, and surprisingly in 2011 I still know several who think it is a waste of time. They are entitled to their opinion. I like to use television as another source of learning, and even some TV fiction can be quite educational in addition to being relaxing. I can’t stand soaps, though.

Now and again it is important to relax the mind with a bit of recreation, so I read some fiction too. I think we need to step outside ourselves just a little, and into someone else’s shoes, to listen to their story. Anyway, I am not the only one who thinks we writers need to train with the best , many of whom write published fiction.

I think better and believe I write better when I remember to take time away from the computer. Surely I am not alone in that? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

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Are you a leader and giver or a follower and taker?

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 14:  Prime M...

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Like many people who may read this, I am a great believer in face to face networking, by which I mean actually getting out to meet people. I run a business breakfast group, and I have been involved in running other groups too. It is great fun to be involved in organizing events, and in working with other people to do this. I have found that I learn a great deal about them, and no doubt they learn a lot about me. That is partly how to build trust in a network; by shouldering some of the responsibility for actually running it.

Not everybody is like that. There are people who turn up to the meetings but they don’t take an active role. They are followers. They do not volunteer for office. They do not speak up in discussions. We don’t know what they think. They don’t encourage others to come. We don’t get support from them and that makes it harder to give to them, because we don’t know what they want.

Many organizations run by members do at times have difficult choices to make, and sometimes that choice is whether or not there is still a need to exist. Without enthusiastic members with vision, many groups can wither and die. I have seen it with local business groups and even those related to old-established international ones who do charitable work. Without strong and vibrant support from a small number of people in running things, even very worthy associations will disappear as passive members take what there is, but don’t participate.

Recently I have witnessed someone perceiving a problem and seizing the initiative in just such a situation. Because he has stepped forward, others have taken up the cause and are putting forward not only their support, but their constructive ideas. The passive will remain passive and still take, but there should still be something they can take from.

Leadership is about doing and about encouraging (not telling) others to do. Giving time and knowledge is often more valuable than money, and most of us have some time to volunteer. It is about taking control of our own lives. I guess that is what David Cameron is talking about with his Big Society, derided by the passive moaners, of course. It is certainly true that the best gifts are of our time, because that is how we can most help others. That involves leading by example.

What do you think?

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Why we need to give our colleagues and clients a lifeboat

Swanage lifeboat by Mark Murphy

Here’s a funny thing

The other day I wrote about leaving our clients and prospects in the air by not getting back to them at holiday times. I had intended to follow this with a piece about longer periods of absence, such as those due to sickness or the one thing worse than sickness which would result in a permanent absence. The funny thing is that yesterday a friend of mine spoke at a meeting about just such an occurrence.

That really is the only funny thing about it, but have you thought what would happen to your business if suddenly you were not there to run it? It really does matter unless your business is based purely on your knowledge and skill and you have no repeat clients or customers.

So what happens in the event of your temporary or permanent absence?

Have you:

  • Staff who can keep your clients happy by maintaining your business?
  • Someone to take charge and run the business? This can be a business partner, an existing staff member or a friend in the same business who can step in.
  • Insurance to pay out when you can’t be there due to sickness or that other worse thing?

Why does it matter if you aren’t there any more?

  • If you have staff you need to think of their security and well-being.
  • If you have family you need to make sure they still have an income and a business to sell if they so wish.
  • If you have one or more business partner you have a duty to make sure they can carry on.
  • You have a moral duty to your clients to give them certainty of a service.

Lifeboat

My friend, who lost his business partner in tragic circumstances, was able to carry on the business because jointly they had a lifeboat for the survivor. The business carried on.

I have recently taken on clients whose previous accountants / tax advisers had died. Their advisers’ businesses had died with them. I had to start from scratch being unable to contact anyone who could hand over the records. The families of the deceased practitioners must have been left with no business to sell, and thus less money to help them through probable difficult retirements.

It is not morbid to think about what would happen to your business if you were not there to run it. Putting procedures in place is just prudent. It is like insurance for something that will probably never happen. You do it just in case, and because you care for your family, your staff and your clients. You do care, don’t you?

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Why we should avoid giving our clients and prospects the holiday blues

Holiday beach

We all need to have a holiday. Well, nearly all of us need one. If we have a small business it takes a certain amount of planning, just as it does to make sure we take leisure time during our working week.

Our clients do not take holidays at the same time as we do. That means that if they leave a message with our office or send us an email they expect some response within a reasonable time. I think a reasonable time is no more than a day for the client to know that you have got or will get the message.

If the client has sent an email, make sure that someone sends a real reply and not an “out of the office” standard response.

If the client has telephoned you know that I think they must have spoken to someone representing your business, if they called in “normal” office hours. That person should have told them that you will get the message when you get back from your holiday. The client will feel that something is going to happen.

If a prospect has called with a new enquiry and not had a timely response their business will go elsewhere.

I don’t think we need to be distracted in our planned leisure time by clients as everyone should understand we all need a holiday. At the same time, I don’t think they should be left hanging, waiting for something to happen, without knowing we are away.

We need to make sure our businesses appear professional and reliable. Most of us are not there 24/7 because we are not large corporations, but that is why we can be special and offer a more personal service. We can show our clients we care and still have a life outside. What do you think?

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How we can raise our credibility as a small business in the service sector

Retired?

Seeing the product

Anyone who has started a small business will know that it is not always easy to be taken seriously by potential customers or clients. It is probably a little easier if you are in retail because your customers can browse around your shop. Even with an on-line shop it is easier because your customer already knows what he or she wants and is then probably looking for a particular brand and the best deal. You have been found. A successful sale should lead to another with good customer service as a back-up.

Service expectations

It is more difficult if you provide a service. You have no product to show. One question I once had from a client’s wife stopped me dead in my tracks. She asked “Are you retired?” Maybe I was looking a bit old and haggard after a very busy time, but I was rather puzzled. Why did she think I was there with the client? I guess she thought I must be playing because:

  1. the services I provide are the same as those of big corporates, though in my case with the personal touch.
  2. I am of a more mature vintage though not gone entirely gray (well hardly at all actually).

Being taken seriously

There are actions we can all take to gain the credibility we need.

  • Ask for testimonials from our early customers which we can publish, and keep the habit of asking for them.
  • Build our local reputation by going out and networking, but not selling. Just being a person your business friends will remember and talk about will give local credibility. Don’t forget to help your fellow networkers, though.
  • Publish case studies in our brochure or website. Have prospects think “I could really do with something similar”.
  • Write articles to showcase our knowledge – content marketing.
  • Have a polite response memorized in case we get asked a potentially wrong-footing question like “are you retired?” I responded by saying that I had built my business for a number of years and had many happy clients.

There will always be those who would prefer to buy from a large corporate rather than a small business. That is probably their loss in terms of quality of service, but we need to be philosophical and concentrate on our personal brand, which is what counts more than anything in the small business service sector.

Smile and move on. Don’t you agree?

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