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Moving beyond discrimination: 50+ interns

17 August 2012

Depressing statistics were revealed in the latest analysis by the Resolution Foundation which showed the UK is lagging behind other countries in the employment of older workers. In fact the number of older workers who have remained out of work for more than a year has risen from 33.2% to 44.5%, with women particularly affected. The report suggests a number of factors are at play including significant caring responsibilities, limited access to flexible working and age discrimination.

I find it bizarre that employers continue to discriminate against older workers when some of the most successful business leaders including Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch and J Willard Marriott, Jr are older. With a raft of young CEOs in the Mark Zuckerberg generation enjoying high profiles and Murdoch being criticised at The Leveson Inquiry for losing control of his business, much of the recent debate about older workers has focused on the pros and cons of older CEOs. But with a less linear career track now common, older workers may now be looking for a new career starting not just on boards and in management teams, but also as administrators or even interns within businesses.

The very idea of an older intern seems alien to us. It is assumed that internships are something that must be endured by the youth as their first step towards entering the highly competitive industries. They are sent to toil with little or no pay to gain that all important experience, references and hopefully a foot in the door. This stems from the fact that we have lost sight of the meaning of the word intern.  As the campaign InternAware highlights the terms work experience, voluntary work and interns are all used fairly interchangeably. But I believe they are fundamentally different.

Someone that chooses to volunteer a bit of time on a regular basis to help their local charity shop is not performing the same duties and should not be treated in the same way as an intern at a professional service company. Likewise work experience is about giving a taster of an industry or business to the individual, without an expectation that they will be grafting at the same level as a full time employee.

So we come to the definition of an intern. At Forster our interns work hard, performing a crucial role and are recognised for the contributions they make to the team. They are paid a decent pro-rata salary and crucially there are opportunities for them at the end of the three month placements, with many former interns becoming full time employees. They bring fresh perspective on the issues our clients face and their insight is listened to. Wikipedia defines Internship as “a system of on-the-job training for white-collar and professional careers”.

So in the interest of continuing to learn about the older audience, how they think, feel and act, as well as the younger generation, we actively encourage applications from older interns.  It’s not simply a case of thinking we should employ older workers at every level of the business, but actually a clear need for the unique skills and perspective they bring.

Our ageing population is growing rapidly, and as it does the definition of being old, older and even elderly is changing. There is frustration that products and services aren’t designed for older people, and even those that are aimed at them are marketed to them as if everyone over the age of 50 is an amorphous mass.

Marketers need to get serious and tackle this problem, or face missing out on a significant chunk of the market. This means involving older people in their business and marketing. Our older interns will be expected to work just as hard as the younger ones, and their insight and input will be just as valuable. Clearly as the Resolution Foundation’s study highlights there are challenges for older workers but for businesses that can adapt, I believe there are significant benefits.