Getting old, but staying young

Redwood Comment
Published:  15 May, 2019
Dr Mike Redwood

Demographic changes impact business networks in different and complex ways, and the leather industry has never been immune. It is acutely affected by geopolitical and macro-economic developments. 

An ageing world is no exception, and we are currently seeing a rise of about 15-20% in annual retirements compared to what we have been used to for some time. This is because the Boomer Generation, born between 1946 and 1964, are now retiring from work. The numbers are big since for the twenty years after 1946 the annual birth-rate grew quite massively in many places. Generation X, which followed the Boomers, is much smaller, so filling vacant positions through natural succession is not easy. Further damage was done to recruitment by career advisers presenting the leather industry as an unsuitable career: a sunset industry, using dangerous chemicals with inappropriate life safety measures.

So, we now rely on the moving the Millennial generation, born after 1980, forward into senior posts faster than usually. This should be good as we do need that jump in thinking into the digital world. I do not mean so much understanding superficial areas like Social Media, important as that is, but the fundamental thinking that sits behind all the implications of moving to a knowledge based, digital society. In many areas, including Leather Naturally, we are already seeing the benefits from the involvement of this new generation of senior management.

It all seems a very long way from the time in the 1980s when business people started to look for an opportunity to take early retirement in their 50’s, hoping to have a decade or so of travel and sunshine on inflation proof pensions backed by some savings. Now wise business people are reading Lynda Gratton’s book on the 100-Year Life and realising that some of their contemporaries and many of their children will live to 100 and will be active and fit well through their seventies and maybe their eighties. Living longer while the birth rate slows, especially in urbanised societies, creates a worry over the cost of pensions and healthcare. China, for example, with less savings than most ageing societies, needs to get rich quickly before it gets old. In the UK it was a tanner (Charles Booth – whose company in the US supported Schultz developing his two critical chrome tanning patents and later exploited the technology by building the world’s biggest kid skin tannery in Philadelphia) who persuaded the government to introduce the universal old age pension in 1908, which paid a pension to everyone on reaching 65. Most retirees only lived for a year.

The knowledge economy needs to retain older management and workers.
The other side to this is to ignore the age 65 when most countries start to define people as old and to encourage older people to be productive much later in life. Lynda Gratton’s argument is that with defined benefit pensions no longer widely available, most people will have to work until they are 80 to achieve a decent retirement income, unless they are clever with their savings. In a knowledge economy, a lot of tacit knowledge lies hidden in the minds of older workers, so it is careless to lose them too easily.

Being productive can mean more than being forced into shelf filling in the local supermarket or helping with local charities - fine as these can be. Camilla Cavendish, another expert in the area, argues that older entrepreneurs have a greater success rate than younger ones and that research has shown that for mental health counselling older grandmothers are particularly good as they listen better, empathise more and have “an ability to reflect”.

Not every older person wants to be a social worker, but the concept of “reflection”, whether it relate to small matters or strategic ones, does carry weight - not spending time complaining about the present while thinking fondly of the past, but seriously contextualising a situation from a well informed and experienced point of view.

As an example, leather is a biophilic material both from and irretrievably linked to our natural environment. The leather industry needs to incorporate that into our thinking, our conversations and our communications. As the design consultant Joseph Clancy said in interview a couple of years ago “the application of biophilia, is known as biophilic design. Its aim is to restore natural stimuli to the built environment and enhance the cognitive psycho-physiological wellbeing of urban inhabitants.”

Todays’ tanners need to reflect on that. Perhaps they need their older employees to help with it.

Dr Mike Redwood
May 15, 2019

mike@internationalleathermaker.com


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