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Beyond The Elephant’s Graveyard

August 5, 2010

This is a post that originally appeared in the Career Advantage website. I’m reposting a few of my Career Advantage articles here. Plenty of other stuff at www.careeradvantage-uk.com/blog. Since the article was originally published, the UK govenment has announced that it’s scrapping the mandatory retirement age of 65, which means that you can carry on working with full employment rights beyond that age. The original piece referred to the age at which you can draw the state pension.

“One of the consequences of the belt-tightening going on around Europe at the moment is that governments are revisiting the retirement age for their citizens. The French are raising the retirement age to sixty two over the next eight years – the barricades are up already as the heroes of the 1968 insurrection brandish their walking sticks in the streets. In the United Kingdom, the new government has just announced that the retirement age for men will rise from sixty-five to sixty-six by 2015.

It’s a nifty way of taking out several billion pounds from the national deficit. Ian Duncan-Smith, the Work and Pensions Minister, pointed out that the current retirement age was set in place when we could all expect to live until the age of seventy-five. Now the average male life expectancy has risen to eighty-five, and higher for women. So the good minister sees no reason why we couldn’t work on until we’re seventy.

All well and good, except that from the 1980s onwards, the over-50s have been increasingly marginalized in the workplace. Not so much in the public sector, where you’re usually allowed to potter on to sixty-five, and then retire on the generous final-salary pension still enjoyed by state employees. But in the private sector, the culling has been ruthless. The received wisdom was that the over-50s were too expensive, a risk because of the disruption caused as they fell prey to chronic illness, and, in the view of the younger masters of corporate destiny, beyond their most creative, productive and motivated days. An exception was usually made in the case of the masters themselves, who cheerfully carried on in office through to their sixties.

I ran a recruitment business in the 90s. It was sad to see the stream of CVs coming in from creative, productive and motivated over-50s who found themselves unable to find a permanent job after redundancy. Many of them found contract or temporary jobs for which they were not temperamentally suited. Others gave up, or turned into independent financial advisors, living on their wits or other peoples’ investments.

In contrast, one of our most successful recruiters was a lady called Gilly. She came into the business in her early 50s and was one of the most effective members of our team until she retired well past the legal age. She had twice the energy of some of her more laid-back colleagues, was spiky, hard working, and had a great sense of humour. She was just one of a number of people I can think of who were effective well past their allocated sell-by dates. My father was one of them. He was a lawyer, and he kept working until he fell off his perch at eighty-one.

The Middle East has a similar culture among white collar workers. But there are differences. Many Saudis and Bahrainis have more than one job – perhaps a main job, but small businesses on the side, or family businesses that can keep them occupied beyond retirement. Also, one of the impressive aspects of the Arab culture is respect for age, particularly among families. If you go to a gathering of GCC nationals in a business or a social context, you are expected to shake hands first with the person oldest person in the gathering. If you get it wrong and go to someone who appears to be the oldest but isn’t, you won’t get thrown out, because expatriate faux pas are usually treated with polite tolerance. In fact you might be paying a back-handed compliment to the young-looking elder!

For a Westerner looking to work in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, it’s quite difficult to get a job once you’re past the age of sixty, but if you start in your fifties and find yourself liked and trusted, you will often be able to work well into your sixties and beyond. Join one of the British Business groups in the GCC, and you will find a disproportionate number of members who in the Europe or the USA would be considered in their dotage. In the Middle East, respect for age and the wisdom it theoretically brings with it is a big advantage. I worked for most of my thirties in Saudi Arabia, and returned to the Middle East after a twenty-year gap. I’m not sure I’m much wiser now than I was then, but it certainly helps to be in your fifties, whether you are doing business with people of a similar age (because they treat you as a peer) or younger (because they have an innate respect for your age). A caveat here: if you’re a fool, they’ll figure you out whatever age you are!

So if you’re in your fifties, and have recently been sent to the corporate elephant’s graveyard in your home country, consider the Middle East. You will need to be open-minded, have a solid professional track record and still have a few dreams to realize.

The alternative might be greeting people at Asda, helping people to find things at the DIY store, or perhaps voluntary work. All of which I would consider if it was necessary, but not just yet….

Steve Royston
June 2010”

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