Harnessing the power of experience and wisdom to prevent age discrimination

We need to tackle age discrimination and recognise the valuable contribution of older people, writes Bette Browne

Grandparents can take heart in the growing clout of one the world’s most powerful clubs — that of global grandparents who run economies, captain industries and wield political power across the world from Ireland to Iceland.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are the latest to join the club even as the former US secretary of state eyes a presidential bid, while here in Ireland grandmother Mary Robinson is busy playing a global peace role and German Chancellor and grandmother Angela Merkel is Europe’s most powerful leader.

Such examples of grandparent power should inspire the older generation, said Eamon Timmins of Age Action Ireland, the organisation behind Positive Ageing Week.

“What those examples of Mary Robinson, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and others show is that older people have a key contribution to make in bringing to the table experience and knowledge.

“There is an element of age discrimination that associates old age with less activity and less influence and less importance but I think older people are playing a key role. What we’re doing in Positive Ageing week is focusing on the fact that we are all growing older and ageing is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

“We are trying to highlight the contribution that older people have made and are continuing to make to their communities and their families. Much of their contribution in many cases is not paid for; therefore it’s not valued because unfortunately we’re a society that doesn’t value what we don’t pay for.

“This afternoon, if you go out to any national school gates, the number of older people collecting grandchildren, as carers or as neighbours or as friends, are playing a very, very important role in the economy. Those children’s parents in many cases are both working, so grandparents are enabling families to get through the recession and pay big mortgages while knowing their children are being well cared for.”

Ireland could make greater strides by tapping the skills and experience of older people to a much greater extent and this would also help to boost the nascent recovery, Mr Timmins said. He cited the approach to older workers of German carmaker BMW.

“In Ireland older people tend to take the brunt of early redundancies so we are losing a lot of experience. By contrast, BMW have adapted one of their production lines in Germany to cater to older people. About 18% or 19% of the German population is over 65; ours is about 12%, so they are desperately trying to hang on to their older workers.”

Older BMW workers now sit on specially designed ergonomic seats and the plant has enhanced lighting, while mobile trolleys make accessing tools easier. Germany knows it desperately needs its older workers and BMW is painfully aware that the number of its employees over the age of 50 will increase to 40% in the next decade from 25% today.

And the approach has worked out well. Workers on the newly adapted production line have been outperforming the younger workers on other lines, producing as many parts but with fewer faults than those produced by the younger workers. This pattern was borne out in a study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin that found workers aged 65 and over are more productive and more reliable than their much younger colleagues.

“Older workers do have a key value and as a society in Ireland we are slowly coming round to that but there is still quite a lot of age discrimination in Irish society,” according to Mr Timmins. “We are also moving the retirement age out much faster than other European countries, so there is also going to be a need for older workers to continue working.”

No doubt to the amusement of many grandparents, some US commentators have wondered how Hillary Clinton would be able to juggle the roles of president and grandmother if she were to run for the White House in 2016. But they needn’t have lost sleep over it. The first President Bush, for example, had 14 grandchildren.

“Hillary Clinton would be a role model if she runs [for the White House] and being a grandmother she would bring extra talents like wisdom and expertise,” says Third Age founder Mary Nally, whose organisation designs programmes and services for the elderly. “Age should never be a barrier for older people.”

Certainly, it was never a barrier to statesmen like the late Nelson Mandela. While he was busy shaping a democratic South Africa, he was both a grandfather and a great-grandfather. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, now a great-grandmother, at 88, is often seen as the glue holding this often turbulent family together.

Former Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurardóttir, who resigned last year after steering the country towards economic stability, was grandmother to six grandchildren when she came to power in 2009, the same year that Forbes magazine listed her among the 100 most powerful women in the world. Some world leaders have also been raised by their grandparents, most notably Barack Obama, and their world view has been profoundly influenced by the older generation.

The elder set has also blazed a trail in the media and entertainment industries in the person of such figures as Rupert Murdoch and, closer to home, Gay Byrne. In the world of literature, some of Ireland’s best works have come from writers like Brendan Kennelly as they moved into their later years, while some of Seamus Heaney’s most moving poems were inspired by his grandfather.

Grandfather Michael Smurfit remains a driving force in Irish industry, while in the United States Warren Buffett, dubbed “America’s grandpa investor,” continues at the age of 84 to make his clients billionaires. But, at the other end of the scale, ageing for large numbers of people in Ireland can be a nightmare.

After a lifetime of working hard and raising families they face grinding poverty in their later years and sometimes even the horror of elder abuse. Their choices are often as bleak as deciding between eating and keeping warm and if they end up in hospital they must wait for hours on cold, uncomfortable trolleys.

“None of these conditions should be acceptable in a wealthy country like Ireland in 2014,” says Age Action CEO Robin Webster.

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