Knowledge Transfer : Dispelling the received wisdom that has excluded seniors from the world of work
Are generation contracts a practical proposition or a nice idea born out of nostalgia? “The generation contract will make it possible for more people to be recruited. Once a young person has been recruited, very careful attention must be paid to the sponsorship provided and the quality of training delivered”. Jean-François Roubaud, Chairman of the General Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprise Employers (CGPME), is a pragmatist. Small and medium-sized enterprises will extract as much benefit as they can from the flagship employment-boosting measure introduced by the Hollande government.
But in France, it seems that every government feels obliged to invent a new policy. The Borloo plan of 2005, which talks about seniors by focusing mainly on youth employment, states the necessity of “helping 800,000 struggling young people into sustainable employment with the help of advisers selected from among public service professionals and seniors with experience in education”. But how do you get young people to recognise the skills of their elders having disqualified them or excluded them early from the productive economy for more than 30 years? In 2009, the Sarkozy government launched its Plan d’Action Senior seniors action plan compelling companies with more than 300 employees to implement practical and measurable initiatives for integrating and training older workers, managing their transition to retirement and transferring their knowledge. These additional and restrictive regulations (subject to fines equivalent to 1% of payroll) had the virtue of highlighting the issues surrounding the employment of seniors. And although the senior’s action plan actually had little impact on jobs, its main success lies in the way it focuses the attention of human resources managers on this often overlooked and neglected population group. Its psychological impact was very positive. The goal of the generation contract this time around is the eventual employment of 500,000 young people, each mentored and supported by a senior. The senior will then be employed until the point of retirement. The aim is to deliver an effective response to the problems surrounding youth employment, at the same time as reducing unemployment among seniors.
Like its predecessors, this measure is accompanied by tax incentives, but the most innovative measure is the one based on the transfer of small companies by elderly directors, because the absence of such transfers causes thousands of small businesses to disappear every year. But small business owners do not necessarily know how to make that transfer, young people rarely have the capital required, and banks are usually reluctant to support them. The generation contract has been developed out of excellent intentions, but the application of the idea of tutorship – older people transferring their knowledge to younger people – is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, when the transfer between generations works, it can be a two-way experience!
“The clash of generations triggers conflicts not only in knowledge transfer (educational issues and fear of potentially losing power), but also in team spirit (a refusal by the youngest to accept discipline imposed by seniors, and the reluctance of seniors to accept younger people as their line managers)”. Nothing can really work properly without a sustainable and strong upturn in the economy. Employment sociologist Éléonore Marbot has devoted her doctorate thesis to “career-end feelings amongst the over-50s” and the bitterness caused by their mediocre treatment. She believes that the problem cannot be resolved unless the volume and intensity of economic activity require it. This condition is necessary, in the same way as essential to put in place conditions needed for seniors to re-engage with the world of work. It is not simply about improving pay, but rather access to training, career opportunities and the structure of working hours. Seniors may need daycare for dependent parents in the same way as younger people need childcare facilities. But the conditions governing occupational wellbeing and workplace appeal are identical – or almost identical – for all categories.
Speaking in 2007 on the outlook for plans to keep seniors in work in France, the 2006 Nobel prize winner for economics Edmund Phelps set out his ideas on this issue. In a ferocious analysis, he described the French situation highlighting the prejudices to be overcome and the conditions to be put in place. So is it true, as many would have us think, that seniors are reluctant to work? We have to make work after retirement a channel for mental stimulation that is effective for every category, including more modest career paths.