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Wisdom. Experience. Maturity. Commitment. Contribution.

The chances are that now you have read these words, you will be more positively disposed to the topic of age. Which is a good thing, because the changing age demographic of the UK population is offering unprecedented opportunity for people, society and business to achieve prolonged and greater health, wealth and even happiness.

That is the message coming out of last week’s “Age Does Not Matter” festival at the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank. Organised by Lottery-backed The Age of No Retirement movement and attended by more than 700 people from the private and public sectors, charities, the media and social interest groups, the event celebrated stories of longer, fuller lives and explored the opportunities for all of us in adopting a healthier attitude to an all-age society.

According to The Age of No Retirement co-founder, Jonathan Collie: “The perceived wisdom in the UK is that an ageing population is a problem, that it will place unbearable pressure on society, that older equates to old, that old equates to dependency. Negative headlines are embedding a perception that old people have no worth in our society.”

And yet the reality is so different. “We have ten, maybe twenty extra years of healthy living and productive participation in all aspects of life. Our extra ten years are, for the majority, youthful and economically active. The idea of being past it at 50 and unemployable at 60 just doesn’t make sense any more - economically or socially. The vast majority of companies in the UK are squandering the massive potential that rests with an older population that is -increasingly - healthier, wealthier, more willing to work and more able to spend.”

Consumer research presented at the event validated the fact that people of all ages are tired of being pigeonholed by the number of birthdays they have had, and subsequently misunderstood. In a 2,000-strong survey, 86% of all people felt brands and media stereotype them by age and 83% of all people feel that they are not like anyone else in their age group. When asked about attitudes to technology, product design and the pace of change, there was in fact no material difference in responses across different age bands. Government was also found to be wanting in their attitudes, with 76% of people saying it did not care enough about people’s backgrounds or ages, and an average 6 out of 10 feeling under-valued because of their age.

Earlier research has highlighted that negative stereotyping is also rife in the employment arena, with 61% of employees over the age of 50 rating their potential for personal development to be “low” or “very low”. A perception that is confirmed by employers who generally rate their 50+ team members as less keen on learning and less interested in personal growth than people of other generations.

Bucking the trend on attitudes to customer and employee demographics is Barclays Bank, one of the first corporate sponsors of The Age of No Retirement and a proponent of an all-age strategy at work. Presenting on the second day of the event, Mark McLane, global head of diversity explained the commercial imperative for the high street bank to serve all ages equally well and that one of the outcomes of that has been an employee base ranging from 17 to 70+. “We are committed to understanding how our sector and how our community is changing and we are trying to look at things in different ways. For example, we wanted to offer peer-to-peer service to our customers, and as a consequence we now have employment opportunities and apprenticeships for older people (called the Bolder Apprentice Programme). Similarly, we set up a Digital Eagles scheme internally, as a means to transfer digital skills from one colleague to another, and that concept has actually spread over into customer service, where we are able to offer help to customers who are not yet familiar with or new to digital connectivity.”

Barclays Bank is just one of the companies creating products and providing services that meet their markets and creating good workplaces that are inclusive to all generations. Clearly, they hope to prove Jonathan Collie’s claim that “the successful companies of tomorrow are the ones that get the concepts of multigenerational and all-age thinking today.” Like me, they are also helping to change the narrative on an ageing population and age at work.

Over the next few months, as an enthusiastic advocate of age, I will be writing for Fresh Business Thinking about how firms that are designing products or services, seeking new customers or looking to hire talented people can take advantage of the changing demographics in the UK population. Specifically I will cover product development, employment issues, language and media, all with the purpose to change the way we think, talk about and respond to age.

By Sheila Parry, founder and chair of theblueballroom.