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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Uncomfortable market positioning

The Waitrose store in Peterborough, Cambridges...
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Price wars

Writing the other day about supermarkets and what one in particular can teach us about comfort reminded me that our up-market supermarket in the UK, Waitrose, is now competing on price, or at any rate telling us that they are no more expensive than Tesco on a range of products. I think this is a big mistake though understandable in a time of austerity and a depressed economy.

Perceived quality

As many would know, Waitrose is the supermarket offshoot of the John Lewis Partnership, which is a chain of stores renowned for the quality of its goods and the quality of its services. I know a few people who swear by John Lewis and wouldn’t do their birthday or Christmas shopping anywhere else, or indeed buy their TV or dishwasher or pashmina scarf from any other shop.

Waitrose has always carried this ethos through to the supermarket environment. The Waitrose image is of quality and while customers always understood that they might pay more, that cachet of comfort has always ensured loyalty of customers who like to feel different. I hope the chain management doesn’t lose sight of this in their desire to compete with the big players in food retail. After all, a lot of people buy into image when they are shopping, otherwise Gucci wouldn’t be such a successful brand, and IPhones and Macs would be less popular given that there are cheaper quality smart phones and computers on the market which deliver the same services. Of course the loyal Apple following might see this as controversial, but I am complimenting Apple on their image, market positioning and closed exclusivity of software and apps management.

Know our minds

I believe we in business all need to know where our place is in the market, and indeed to work at our positioning. If we are providing a service we need to make sure it is distinct from and better than everyone else’s and in my view the last thing we want to do is be cheap.  We just need to be different and high quality as Waitrose has always been, and if they have any sense, will continue to be.

What do you think?

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Great gestures and goodwill

A local business in our County Town has a regular monthly networking lunch meeting and I was lucky enough to be invited along a week or so back. I met some great people, both new faces and familiar ones, and there were probably sixty or eighty people there.

Here’s the thing. The buffet lunch was free. It was an extremely generous gesture by the host business. Of course the bar venue had to make money, so the drink wasn’t free, but free food and great company? Who would turn that down?

The idea is of course great marketing. Which firm in the host’s sector will we think of first when we or our clients have a need? In the long run they will get great business and I stress, this is probably a long haul marketing strategy to get more clients, and that deserves admiration for their foresight.

So we have a free lunch and benefit from building relationships, and with the kindness and courtesy shown by our hosts on the day they will be deserved winners.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Manage yourself, manage your clients

In running our own businesses it is very easy to not allow ourselves enough recreation time, or time not just working. Of course we do not just keep regular working hours. Most of us attend to our tasks at odd hours, but part of the advantage of working for ourselves is that we can, now and again, take some personal time during the working week, either when we wish to or sometimes when it is thrust upon us, such as (in my case recently) helping elderly relatives.

We do need to stop ourselves from being at our clients’ or customers’ beck and call at all times. I have a quite technical business anyway, but I do not give out my mobile (cell) number unless absolutely necessary. The number is not on my business card. Usually if I am not available in the office during normal working hours it is because I am with a client or out and about seeing clients or at networking events. It is not convenient for me to take calls and probably I could not answer with confidence without my file any questions that might be asked. My assistant will take messages and I can call back when convenient.

Generally I do not do client work at weekends, except at the height of our tax season, and even then not the last weekend because I organise my clients to spare me the last-minute rush. I do write articles and blog posts at weekends because I enjoy doing it, and it is great when a sort of recreation has a useful marketing function (there, I admit it: I market; actually quite a lot).

So if my client calls on a Friday afternoon at 4.30 and asks if I can produce a document needed by first thing Monday morning, I may look askance at the request.

Firstly, I may have plans for the weekend. Secondly, I have to ask myself whether I should modify or abandon those plans and whether I have time anyway.

Thirdly, I ask myself whether this is a really good client, who has become a friend and who would not ask unless it was desperate. Alternatively is this an inconsiderate nuisance client who apparently thinks they are my only client, but does not go as far as paying me on time? This is where I manage their expectation and their presumption in deciding what to do. Of course, that is not to say that I won’t help with something I would have time to do on Monday morning. I am not cussed.

I look after all my clients well, but they do not own me or my leisure time. I will do a special favour based on its merits, but at weekends, home and family comes first.

Do you have this trouble from clients or customers? How do you deal with it?

© Jon Stow 2010

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