Back to the future: the rise of mature age interns

Peter Brady was 68 when he decided to start the transition to retirement. His plan was to switch from full-time work to casual contracts so he’d have more time to spend with his family and to travel. 

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However the former CEO of Autism ACT soon hit upon a snag: age discrimination. 

" People are being discriminated against by people of that exact same age cohort.” - Toby Dawson

“I found if I submitted my full CV, I wouldn't get an interview," he tells bluenotes. "If I truncated my experience and qualifications I'd get one, But then I'd show up at the interview and be competing against all these Gen Ys – I’ve got no doubt there was discrimination going on.” 

A 2016 Australian Seniors Insurance Agency (ASIA) study found close to half of those over 40 years’ of age have missed out on a job because of their age, while three in five people over 50 faced substantial obstacles when trying to change careers.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Willing to Work report of 2016 found age-related bias is widespread - and particularly rife in employment.

“Remarkably, the report found a high proportion of hiring managers who were taking age into account were aged over 40 themselves," Toby Dawson, a manager at the aged care provider IRT Foundation says. "People are being discriminated against by people of that exact same age cohort.” 

While age discrimination has a slew of negative impacts including those on mental health, families and financial independenceit’s also regrettable from a broader economic perspective.

A 2015 survey by AHRC found an increase of just 5 per cent in the paid employment of Australians aged over 55 would have a $A48 billion impact on the economy each year.

With the number of Australians aged 65 and over projected to double by 2055 there will be an increased demand for aged-care services and additional strain on the welfare system if greater labour force participation isn’t achieved.

While the Willing to Work report urges the government to create a national action plan to address employment discrimination and to launch public education campaigns to dispel negative stereotypes about older workers, some have started taking matters into their own hands.

Brady says he was delighted to be offered a reverse internship by IRT’s Dawson, who at the time was 31.

The idea came from the movie The Intern starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, in which a 70-year-old widower interns at a fashion company run by a CEO half his age.

“It just so happened The Intern had come out and we’d both seen it. We talked about it at the interview and decided that’s what we’d do,” recalls Brady.

“My role was to share some of the tricks of the trade and where I had skinned my knees, so to speak. At the same time, Toby was managing transitioning me to a more junior role - he was coaching me in how to do it again.”

Brady didn’t want to stop working completely and working 40 hours a month would allow him to put the money he’d made from selling an investment property into his super fund. However he understood if he wanted to work fewer hours, he would need to take on a more junior role.

“When you go for those senior roles, they’ll start off saying that 20 hours a week is fine but within a matter of weeks it becomes, 'Can you give us another day?' Or the board is calling you up at all hours. It's difficult to be a part time CEO or manager, because crises inevitably come up.”

The role he was offered as a project coordinator at IRT allowed Brady to brush up his social media skills and to learn how to use newer Microsoft Office applications; tasks he previously delegated.

He says the first year of the 18-month internship was challenging, partly because it required a change of mindset.

“When you're no longer the manager and not directing people anymore, it’s emotionally a bit draining," he says. "You see people walk past you to go to a consultant for advice and you think, ‘Hang on a second. I used to do that, I could help you there.’ It’s about getting over that.”

But he said the experience was invaluable because he has since moved to work for Wollongong City Council where he works on a casual basis.

It was also a win for Dawson, who says working with Brady fast-tracked his own learning and development.

“This was both in terms of industry knowledge, because he had an enormous amount of experience, as well as helping develop to my soft skills around being a manager and leader," he says. "It was a really enriching experience.”

Younger now

Companies such as Barclays Bank in the UK and Goldman Sachs and PricewaterhouseCoopers in the US have launched formal apprenticeships targeting older workers, however there are few such initiatives in Australia.

The ASIA study found more than 40 per cent of baby boomers feel stuck in a rut because a career change feels unlikely due to their age. Close to half spent more than six months finding a job in a new field, with one in six taking five years or more.

The Willing to Work report identified a “damaging gap in access to skills training and retraining for workers approaching mid-life”.

This is particularly so in industries which are labour-intensive or in decline, such as manufacturing. But it’s also a reason why enterprising older workers are turning to internships as a way of rebooting their careers.

After running a successful chocolate smash cakes business for five years, 46-year-old Joanne Star decided it was time for a change and sold her business.

“I felt like I had achieved everything I wished to achieve and it was time to hand it over to somebody who would be able to deal with retailers, which I didn’t want to do," she says. 

“I had managed to get a decent following on social media for my business and I wanted to learn more and get back into marketing.”

Star undertook a three-month internship at an IT and marketing company in Melbourne called Modern Currency, where most of her colleagues, including a co-owner, are in their twenties.

“I love it. They make me feel young and I feel like I'm learning all the time,” she says.

However Star came to realise social media was “another language”.

“It comes so naturally to young people,” she adds. “I feel like my strengths are in verbal communication and old-fashioned PR, which is picking up the phone and reaching out to newspapers and so forth."

"I think there's definitely a place for somebody my age in a PR company because we have the communication skills. I'm not saying younger people can't do it and maybe it's a personality thing but I think some people find it easier to communicate behind screens.”

Star was offered a permanent role as PR manager at the end of her internship.

“Once I started to intern, I realised I didn't have the skills to have gone out and done it without being surrounded by it on a daily basis," she says. "I could never have done what I'm doing now without being given the opportunity to intern.”

See change

Kelly James met her husband when she was 19 and had three children by the time she was 25.

“It didn't allow much time for anything but changing nappies and later on I kind of felt like I’d lost my identity," she says. "I started blogging and found I really enjoyed writing.”

She leapt at the opportunity to do a three-week internship with the women’s lifestyle website Mamamia and flew from Brisbane to Sydney to start it the day after she turned 30.

“I remember it being in the ad that it wasn’t just about making coffees,” James says.

“I mean, I would have been quite happy to make coffee but it was very much about learning systems such as WordPress and other editing tools, and a bit of transcribing. And I had five articles published during the time I was there, so it was great.”

She said she was also pleasantly surprised to discover she wasn’t the “old intern”.

“There were two or three other interns who were older than me and another intern also had three children and was looking for a career change.”

Afterwards, James got a full-time job at an online publishing company back in Brisbane, which she credits to the work experience she obtained while continuing her Communications degree.

“I know unpaid internships get a lot of flak and I don't think I would have been able to do it when I was a young uni student. But it was definitely a great opportunity to get hands-on experience.

“University is great but you learn a lot quicker and you learn more of the things you need to know when you’re on the job.”

Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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