Saturday, 25 March 2017

From the archive: What a drag it is getting old...

Last night Panorama screened a programme about ageism in the workplace. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! The BBC is renowned for being ageist as the recent case concerning Miriam O'Reilly, a Countryfile presenter, proved; and let's not forget countless other people who have been told they're too old to be on the beeb – Moira Stewart was one and then there was Arlene Phillips, who was replaced by Alesha Dixon.
Arlene Phillips knows more about dancing than Alesha Dixon, but because Dixon is younger than Phillips, the beeb thinks that people sitting at home in front of the television would rather stare at Dixon than Phillips. We're not THAT shallow, are we?
Phillips must have been inwardly fuming over that scandal, but surely Dixon is secretly thinking, "I'll be next" as she stares pensively into her bathroom mirror, checking for any early wrinkles.
The problem with the BBC's ageism policy is that it's sexist. Strictly Come Dancing's Len Goodman and Bruce Forsyth, for instance, are both really old men – Brucie is in his 80s – but they are still going strong and if you take a look at Newsnight, good old Paxo, now white-haired, is as stroppy as ever. Mind you, I'd rather have Paxo presenting a heavyweight current affairs programme than Adrian Chiles or Dominic Littlewood.
Fortunately, Panorama chose Fiona Phillips to present its ageism programme, probably because she's no spring chicken, although she scrubs up well, to coin a phrase. Phillips turns 50 this year and I guess she was chosen to quieten down the beeb's critics who would have been in uproar had Fearne Cotton been the chosen presenter – and rightly so.
The programme focused on a real problem: the fact that employers in the UK don't want people in their 50s working in their companies. Why? Well, there must be many reasons. One must be that by the time people reach 50 they've kind of sussed things out. They know that loyalty means nothing and that if you work your arse off for anybody you'll get no thanks. They're aware that burning the midnight oil is a mistake, especially where there's no overtime payments, and they don't want to hear any rubbish about team work.
When you're in your 50s you just want to do your job to the best of your ability and get paid for it; you're not going to suck up to the boss, not only because he or she will probably be younger than you are, but because you know it's not going to get you anywhere and you've realised that you work to live, not live to work.
Panorama focused on four people: three men and one woman, all of whom were out of work and having real problems finding a job. Why? Because they're considered to be past it. All four of them have been trying to get work for a very long time, but they've failed despite being well qualified for the roles in question.
What I found really annoying – alright, I found it really irksome – was the absolutely useless presence of Digby Jones. That man failed to grasp the problem and spent any airtime he was given patronising four decent people who already felt bad enough about their lot and certainly didn't need Baron Jones of Birmingham telling them what do.
Jones got it completely wrong. If you're reading this, 'Baron', the point of the programme was this: people in their 50s – qualified people who might have studied hard to become professionals in some sphere or other – are being turned away from jobs that they want to do and for which they are more than qualified. They want to do the job but one thing stands in their way – their age.
But did Jones grasp it? No, he didn't. "Why don't you re-train, become a plumber?" he said as the hapless individuals were given a patronising one-by-one audience with the Baron, who resembled a poor man's Wizard of Oz, after the curtain had been pulled back, and our four 50-somethings were, perhaps, Dorothy, The Tin Man, The Lion and the Scarecrow.
That's not the point, Mr Jones, they don't want to become minicab drivers, driving instructors or plumbers. Why would they? They want to remain as accountants or teachers and they're perfectly capable but they are being stopped by employers who are more concerned about saving money or, in the case of the Beeb, with cosmetic issues.
What I also found rather amusing about the Panorama programme was the occasional input from Age UK, a charity that is obviously anti the whole ageism thing. Sadly, though, the charity's representative was a young bloke who was definitely not in his 50s – they missed a big trick there.
There was no happy ending to the programme either. I was expecting written announcements prior to or during the end credits, stating that the programme's subjects had all found work in their chosen fields, but no, they hadn't. One resorted to voluntary work, the other considered turning a hobby (picture framing) into a job and another – who was sent to work in a bar – gave it up because he felt it was below him. The female former teacher had started her own business, but it all went wrong for her when she lost a contract.
The big problem for the UK and its growing population of over-50s, is that while we're all being expected to work longer before we pick up our state pensions, there are people, like Digby Jones, who expect professional people to simply down tools at 50 (largely for cosmetic reasons) and accept jobs that aren't so important in a 'people-facing' sense. It's as if the general public as a whole – and employers and their workforces in particular – have some kind of aversion to people with a bit of white hair or a more wrinkled face and shouldn't have to endure looking at them for fear of being offended.
I was going to finish this article with the phrase 'grow up', but then I realised that growing up and getting older was the nub of the problem when it shouldn't be.
Napoleon once referred to the United Kingdom as a 'a nation of shopkeepers', but if things keep going the way they are, we'll be a nation of driving instructors and 'white van men' and newsagents windows will be inundated with 'man and van' cards.
Such a fate awaits us all and there must be thousands of people in college today wondering whether it's worth studying hard if they're going to end up stacking shelves in a supermarket or a DIY superstore. Why not simply leave college and go there now? That way you'll avoid disappointment later in life.

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