Written by
Gloria Moss

07 Jul 2016

Brexit: Rethinking the 50 plus

07 Jul 2016 • by Gloria Moss

How has Brexit changed the mindset of a nation?

Brexit has unleashed a seismic wave across Europe. Margot Wallstrom, Sweden's Foreign Minister, said she was concerned that it would mean the collapse of the EU and that other EU states might want to have their own referendums too. Wallstrom is a former European Commissioner for the Environment and for Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy and so her views are very much those of an insider. In fact, major figures across the political spectrum have emphasised the impact of Brexit. President Hollande in France, for example, has said that "It's more than the future of the United Kingdom that is at stake, it's the future of the European Union" and in the Netherlands, anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, has spoken of the need for Nexit. Even Sarah Palin in the US has even spoken of the need for a break with the United Nations so the British referendum could have a domino effect worldwide.

One group of the British population largely responsible for ignoring the messages of doom projected for Brexit, confident to step into the unknown, is the 50 plus age group. This demographic contributed more than 55% of Brexit votes, rising to 61% for the over 65s, figures that contrast starkly with the 75% of voters aged 24 and under who voted Remain (see Table below). On key issues, there are divisions in the attitudes of the young and the 50+ with just 20% of under 24s concerned as to Britain’s ability to act independently compared with 47% of the 65+.  This highlights a concern on the part of the older age group for autonomy, a priority identified in research I conducted with colleague Hilary Mullen (Mullen et al, 2012).

The baby boomers are renowned for two distinctive generational characteristics, individualism and liberalism. This individualism rests on a number of bases. First, it involves a distinctive orientation away from formal authority, bolstered by their association with various 1960s countercultures and their distrust of ‘the establishment’ in its various cultural and institutional guises.

The baby boomers’ liberalism is important because of the impact that it has already had on reshaping and reconfiguring the personal circumstances of the baby boom generation and because of its potential impact on shaping their demands in the future. In terms of the former, there are clear implications for family structure and, by extension, for a whole series of systems and institutions whose viability is predicated on that structure remaining stable.

According to YouGov, the main reasons people voted Leave were immigration and sovereignty, the latter being the Eurosceptic idea that the U.K. has given away power to the EU.

Innovation and the 50+

There are important lessons for the workplace. Innovation - the adoption of ideas that are new to the world – relies on a sense of autonomy, social rule independence and high self-confidence (Patterson et al., 2009), elements that characterise the actions of Britain’s 50 plus in stepping into the unknown territory of Brexit. Significantly, innovation is critical for organisational long-term prosperity and survival, particularly in dynamic markets.  

Current position of the 50+ at work

An Institute of Leadership and Management Study (2015) found that the Baby Boomer generation (aged 51 to 70) is perceived positively by management as having the best knowledge for their occupation (85%) and understanding of customers (78%) compared with younger workers. A publication from the Department for Work and Pensions (2013) identifies positive features as linked to this demographic’s broad range of skills and experience (possible to pass on to younger workers through mentoring and training); equivalent productivity to their younger counterparts, offsetting any loss of speed with better judgement gained from experience; fewer days lost through sickness and contribution to improved staff morale.

Given these positives, it is positive that workers over 50 comprise 27% of the workforce in the UK with that number expected to grow to one-third. Older workers are choosing to stay employed in increasing numbers with the employment rate for those aged 50 to 64 growing from 55.4 to 69.6% over the past 30 years, an increase of 14.2 percentage points.  The employment rate for people aged 65 and over has doubled over the past 30 years, from 4.9 to 10.2%, an increase of 5.3 percentage points.

However, despite the many positive features identified in the 50+ working population, 46% of the Baby Boomer generation consider their work prospects to be poor (Institute of Leadership and Management, 2015).

A major factor in this are negative stereotypes about older workers (Houses of Parliament An Ageing Workforce Study 2011). These assumptions, according to the report, are largely undermined by evidence that limits the effects of age on physical and cognitive capacities. In fact, there are extremely powerful arguments for employing 50+ workers on the basis that they match the demographic of the most affluent customer group in the UK population.  As Hilary Mullen of Buckinghamshire New University, expert in marketing to the 50+, said:  “a key concept in marketing is ensuring that organisations deliver an outside in perspective and, given the economic affluence of the 50+ age group, it is vital that workers from this segment are employed to communicate effectively with this important demographic. My research shows the 50+ is an overlooked segment by organisations and that a great deal more effort is required to maximise the effectiveness of communications both digitally and through traditional media with this group”.

She goes on to ask “ Could it be that the failure to understand this group led politicians to overlook the strength of the drive for autonomy found in this demographic?”

It is this very drive for autonomy and resilience in thinking that can make them such a powerful presence in the workplace. Is it time for the political maelstrom affecting global politics to be unleashed in the workplace?