Grey, shy and retiring? Not us!

Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD), a director of Legal Futures Associate Trafalgar, argues that firms need to develop strategies to retain older lawyers, for everyone’s benefit

Sands of time: firms should look to take advantage of older workers, not shuffle them out when they hit 65

As a baby boomer, I like many of you am destined to work till I am 70 – at least. Why? Partly because I am sure I will be physically and mentally capable, partly because I will need the income to sustain my excessive lifestyle into my 100s (ha ha!) and partly because I will still have a lot to contribute to commerce, so why shouldn’t I? I have recently returned from a long sojourn in South Africa which, whilst wonderful, taught me how quickly I would become bored out of my mind if I had more than four weeks away from using my brain.

Not retiring enough?

With demographics that are making our eyes water, we have an ever-decreasing Western population to support an ever increasing ageing population. We need the younger generations, through their taxes, to provide our pensions. The 2006 Employment Equity (Age) Regulations outlawed discrimination on the grounds of age. The government has said it will be reviewing the national default retirement age (NDRA) this year, which could include abolishing it, meaning there is no barrier to working till we drop! Businesses will have to work out how they are going to manage this grey, not-so-shy and no-so retiring employee group, who will not be keen to be shuffled off at 65.

Despite the legislation, our traditional approach to recruitment is to discount the over-45 year-olds, especially in certain roles such as sales, because there is a perception that a whole range of our faculties start to deteriorate, drop off and the ‘aged’ person becomes less effective. However, we are all living longer (both my parents, well into their 80s, are still with us), have better health with the prospect that the majority of us will reach our 90s easily, with many hitting 100+: no problem.

Add into the mix the need to:

  • Introduce performance-related pay systems this decade – at least in some measure;
  • Take advantage of the developments in technology (so we can work from anywhere, Including a river bank whilst fishing); and
  • Appreciate that employees are much more demanding – and whilst we think the younger ones can call the shots, so too can the greying ones.

Grey but definitely golden brains?

Organisations should be planning now how to manage the older and younger groups of employees. Could this be a golden opportunity to balance these two groups successfully on opposite sides of the scales: incoming and outgoing expertise? The hazard organisations have always had is throwing away the many years of experience gained at the firm’s expense because someone has had their 65th birthday and must retire. This foolish approach has to stop as it is an appalling waste and firms are not monetising their excessive investment in people.

In the research I carried out a few years ago (and then wrote up in a book) into the role of the managing partner (MP), I identified that one on the commonest reasons the most talented lawyers/partners did not want to take on the role, was their concern about what they would do once they got to the end of their term in office. Options cited included: returning to transactional work (with maybe a two-to-three year window to get back up to full speed), moving to another law firm, or leaving the law altogether.

This approach simply ignores the expertise these MPs have built up, resulting in some golden insights and improvements in the firm. It appears that the profession would do well to re-think its position, not only on how to head-hunt MPs from firm to firm, but also their approach to the grey-haired lawyers and partners who still have a great deal to offer well into their 70s.

As I start to reach towards my mid/late 50s, I have been looking more carefully at those over 65 to see just what they look like, and what they do to occupy their time. Frankly, those of us who have had busy and full lives, with intellectual stimulus at the heart of our work, are in danger of dying of boredom rather than any ailment. Busily completing their crosswords, Sudoku or bridge classes, it would probably be far more stimulating to spend time with other business people than slowly vegetating on a golf course.

Developing grey strategies

Ok, so I am maybe being a bit extreme, but the route to longevity is activity of body, mind and soul: look around you. Employers have a responsibility and an opportunity to access this useful resource that resides in the over 64¾ year-olds.

Strategies should be explored to help individuals build their IT skills, identify what work they would be interested in, and then have rewards that are varied to the level of their contribution. My father started using his computer aged 70; he had created a paperless office by the age of 77, and now has group e-mails to all his extensive family – aged 87: we will have him on Facebook soon.

It is never too late to teach an old dog some new tricks – they have just got to want to. Attitudes are all, and that is something we have to re-educate not only the young, but those of us growing older, that we are not disappearing/invisible/worthless: there is still more to come.

Attitude towards our elders

If you are developing any grey employment and performance policies to keep these Golden Brains active – regardless of the legislation – please let us know by e-mail to: A number of us are developing a website to collate best practice in this area and would welcome all ideas and contributions.

Could we soon be coining the phrases “Grey Baby Boomers” or the “Grey Pound”?


    Readers Comments

  • Nicholas Carsen says:

    Why, in God’s name has it taken so long for somebody (Patricia) to state something so blindingly obvious. One only has to look at the preposterous training contract adverts and ‘case studies’ to understand how tired and lazy the law industry has been in promoting so called young now ‘junior’ lawyers. The real world (blue chip, retail), has been recognizing talent of all ages for many years now. Indeed, the ‘Grey Pound ‘ is certainly not a new phenomenon especially in Scandinavia and parts of Europe and should now be a fully operational marketing tool in the UK. Unfortunately, the idiot opinion formers in the advertising industry cannot or will not change their mindset. Sadly also, the movers and shakers in magic circle and other firms follow rather than lead the necessary change.

  • Having worked in the legal recruitment market for over 9 years a vast majority of my time is spent working with `older lawyers’. This is particularly prevalent in the locum market where I would estimate approximately 80% of the candidates I register and work with are over the age of 50 years. The majority are only too eager to keep their hand in the law rather than face a daily routine of Sudoku and broadsheet reading to keep their minds from freezing over. These “Grey Crusaders” are seen as a valuable resource getting to grips with problem matters in an efficient and experienced manner whilst remaining professional and jovial with existing staff members and clients. The legal landscape as we know it will change dramatically over the next few years, however clients or should one say, “customers” are still entitled to a quality service and what price can you put on experience? Firms should overlook this valuable demographic at their peril.

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