The spanners are coming

Mary Byrne

The delightful Mary Byrne - but not everyone wants a job at Tesco

You’re made redundant or you retire in your 50s or 60s. You’re fit, smart, experienced, and still interested in working. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

The Americans have coined the expression ‘the Wal-Mart years,’ in recognition of the many people aged from 55 to 75 who take low paid, menial jobs in supermarkets. Perhaps they’d prefer to be doing something else but, unable to stop work financially or unwilling to give up the social benefits that come with it, this seems to be the best work on offer. Suppose, though, you’ve been managing for most of your career. Suppose you’re an expert in IT, or design, or finance and think you have something useful to contribute, perhaps to a nonprofit organisation or in a socially useful sector. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

Retirement Reinvented is a UK website intended to be a kind of Craigslist for jobs, paid and unpaid, of particular interest to the over-50s in a specific geographical area. The idea, according to one of its founders, Graham Ross Russell, is to encourage recruitment companies to use it as a resource, and to reach individuals a couple of years before or after they retire. At a time when large numbers of people – doubtless many of them older – are expecting to lose public sector jobs, the idea seems timely. Last week’s Equality and Human Rights Commission report, How Fair Is Britain? made the point that for the over 55s, Britain is often extremely unfair, not least because they are often unwillingly unemployed.

The Canadians are experimenting with a similar website, Thirdquarter, a two-year pilot project funded by four Canadian provincial Chambers of Commerce. The site hints at ambitions to be more than a clearing house, offering to advise individuals in assessing and presenting their experience, and companies and volunteer organisations on how to develop by making use of mature talent.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for new social institutions to help people find their way into a new stage of life. In the United States, a pilot programme from Civic Ventures, Encore Fellowships, has recently been backed by the government. Under the scheme, 10 corporate executives left their jobs in the private sector to spend six months or a year working with nonprofit organisations. Half of their $25,000 stipend was paid by their former employer, half by the nonprofit. The government has now made provision initially for 10 Encore Fellows in each state, with the public sector paying half the salary. One of the Encore Fellows calls himself and his colleagues ‘spanners,’ because they show that it’s possible to span the gap between retirement and old age.

Caroline Waters

Caroline Waters of BT

In this country, some employers are taking the agebomb seriously; at BT, for example, director of people and policy Caroline Waters explains that employees are urged to think start thinking flexibly about the possibilities for their life course as soon as they join the company. There is a deliberate effort not to see careers as linear, but as periods of work interspersed with non-work, which may come about for all sorts of reasons from parental responsibilities to voluntary work to studying for a degree. Waters would like to see a move away from the notion of a pension to a fund for life, which could be dipped into for career breaks at any age.

Cuts mean that Britain faces rising unemployment, which some will doubtless aim to disguise as early retirement. In truth, most people in their 50s and 60s are in no great hurry to stop working. The popularity and charm of the X Factor’s Mary Byrne notwithstanding, nor do they necessarily want to be on the tills as Tesco’s. At least two of the sectors which are attractive to older people – education and healthcare – are relatively recession-proof, and, if the government has any sense, green jobs will be too. It is clear that new institutions and resources are needed to help people make a transition into a new stage of life and work – to become spanners – and that they are needed pretty urgently.


3 thoughts on “The spanners are coming

  1. I was made redundant at the age of 63. The whole process was humiliating, and from the first ‘consultation’ meeting I knew I was earmarked because of the manner of the team, and remarks from the female in charge. It was obvious my age was a problem.

    After two years I am beginning to gain some confidence again. I am a housing association resident, and as changes are occurring in resident involvement, I have attended meetings to formulate these processes. They do not tax my brain! in fact I enjoy the way it is stretched, especially as some of the subjects are the same as those I formerly advised members of the public on with my previous employment in a local authority contact centre.

    It was literally overnight that I felt my worth disappear when out and about. Maybe the times I had for shopping etc were on a par with younger workers, and now I am out during the day that I observe ageism in practice. I am as observant as I ever was, and wish I were better prepared for what was to come when the axe first fell!


    • Rosalind, this sounds like a horrible experience, although one you’ve weathered and that you may in the end be able to turn to your advantage. You’re right about ageism – it’s so deeply embedded that most of the time we don’t notice it. Once you do become aware, it’s shocking. Good luck with new directions and, if in doubt, repeat loudly to self: ‘I have a right to be here’!’


  2. God Bless Geraldine Bedell, and please let the idea of agebomb come to Great Britain bringing legislation with it!


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