Yes, older workers need new skills – but they need respect more

The BBC’s plan to have millennials ‘reverse mentor’ managers is just a start. The generation gap is going to affect all our working lives.

Old dogs, meet new tricks. The BBC’s director of radio and education, James Purnell, didn’t put it quite so bluntly. But that’s more or less the gist of his announcement that from next month senior managers will be “reverse mentored” by twentysomethings who can help them understand what millennials like.

Since the short answer to this question is “not the BBC”, it’s easy to grasp why he might have acted. The Beeb is fighting a losing battle with Netflix and YouTube for younger viewers’ attention while new rivals such as Facebook’s venture into original programming are emerging all the time. The BBC has already been ticked off by Ofcom for being “overly focused on middle-aged, middle-class audiences”, not very good at portraying minority groups and lacking in “edgy content”.

With apologies to all those middle-aged viewers already struggling to find anything to watch of an evening, the consensus is that it needs to get more down with the kids. Hence this plan to turn traditional mentoring – which normally involves a successful silverback graciously passing on their accumulated wisdom to young hopefuls – on its head.

And the BBC is not alone. The idea that the old have much to learn from the young, as well as vice versa, is increasingly gaining traction in corporate life. Big companies, from the consultancy firm Ernst & Young to the American retailer Target, have used reverse mentoring for everything from helping older workers to master new IT to spreading new thinking and gently challenging outdated working practices (no, it’s not weird for men to want to go part-time when they have kids; yes, people can be perfectly productive while working from home).

As early retirement becomes a thing of the past, reverse mentoring is seen as a way of helping older workers stay in the game for longer and easing the friction between generations. Watch the Conservative party’s current painful efforts to get its head around what younger voters want, and you get some inkling of why it might be necessary.

Yet the very suggestion of being babysat by some youngster with one eye on your job will doubtless infuriate some. At best, the implication that the middle-aged are out of touch is faintly insulting; at worst, it sounds like the beginning of being put out to grass. Given how so many older workers are currently treated by their employers, such suspicions are hardly surprising.

“They say that 50 is the new 40, but to the world of work – my kind of work anyway – 50 may as well be 60 or 70 or 80. As a matter of urgency, I need to get younger, not older. It’s a question of survival.” So says Kate Reddy, the heroine of Allison Pearson’s new novel How Hard Can It Be?, of her return to the City after a career break.

The book is the long-awaited sequel to I Don’t Know How She Does It, Pearson’s noughties novel about a high-flying City mother torn between work and home. It finds our now middle-aged heroine staring down the barrel of the menopause and regretting her decision at the end of the first novel to quit banking and spend more time with her children. It may have seemed the best way to save her sanity at the time, but now the kids are grumpy teenagers, her husband isn’t earning and the mortgage needs paying. So Kate lies about her age, falsifies her CV and just about scrapes back into the City in a position several rungs below her old one, where she worries constantly about giving herself away by her cultural references and seethes at taking orders from a condescending younger man whose job she could do rather better than he can.

If the first Kate Reddy novel sold millions by tapping into exhausted women’s fantasies about giving up work, this one taps into a different but equally powerful fantasy; the burning desire of older women who have taken a career break to be given a second chance, and the longing not to be written off or rendered invisible. Funny as it’s intended to be, there is anger pulsing beneath the book’s surface, and it’s an anger shared by many underappreciated fiftysomethings in the workplace.

For, like the first book, this one is a fictionalised account of a very real problem. When Pearson’s first book came out, sexism in the City was all over the headlines, thanks to a string of lurid employment tribunal cases. But now it’s ageism that increasingly keeps the lawyers busy, in an industry where, traditionally, traders who hadn’t made enough money to retire in their early 40s were seen as having failed.

Even outside the notoriously dog-eat-dog world of the Square Mile, meanwhile, a study carried out for the last Labour government by the peer Baroness Altmann identified a tacit consensus in corporate life that men were no longer considered for career progression over 55, while women were deemed to have reached their professional sell-by date a decade earlier – although even that would be pushing it in the aggressively youthful culture pervading many of the BBC’s new tech industry rivals. In Silicon Valley, Purnell himself would be considered rather long in the tooth at 47.

No wonder so many veterans in the tech industry admit to constantly looking over their shoulders, intensifying their gym regime, even sneaking in a little cosmetic surgery. It’s professionally dangerous not to conform to the youthful, fresh-out-of-college vibe associated with start-ups, or to demonstrate too much battle-hardened experience when arguing that this week’s crazy blue-sky idea won’t actually work. Nobody can afford to be seen as intellectually staid or conservative in an industry that prides itself on being constantly disruptive, innovative, bursting with youthful impatience; “move fast, break things” is not a mantra for anyone old enough to start questioning the value of breaking everything.

As the technological revolution gathers pace, the over-40s in many other industries will probably have to adjust to the same rapid, sometimes bewildering, pace of change. Reverse mentoring is probably a damn sight kinder than some of the alternatives for those struggling to adjust – and done with tact, generosity and open minds on both sides, it could be part of the solution. But it’s not a substitute for treating the over-50s with the respect they deserve, and it won’t reach its full potential unless employers first gain their older workers’ trust. If old dogs sometimes growl, it may only be because they have good memories.