John Browne from BP on Ageing and Age Discrimination

geoff mulganOn Thursday, I went over to the fantastic Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End to listen to a lecture organised by The Young Foundation on ageing and age discrimination. John Browne, chief executive of BP spoke and took questions about the issue.

Afterwards I spoke to Geoff Mulgan (pictured right) about what he’d heard Lord Browne say. Click on the picture to see the video.

The Perfect Path interest in this area is in putting together a project called The New Generation, which is a videoblog telling stories from active older people – focusing on their aspirations for the future rather than using simply them as a historical resource telling us about the past. If you’re interested in making a contribution to this project, do get in touch – we are very happy to accept help and support, financially and otherwise.

Lord Browne started by paying tribute to Michael Young. Though they’d never met, and if they had they might not have agreed on the subject of meritocracy, he was sure that they would have agreed on the need to help individuals to reach their full potential, no matter where they are starting from.

They would also have agreed on chronologism, a term that Young coined, to describe the tendency to judge people according to their physical age. Browne pointed out that we have created a bureacracy of age around the ticking of the clock whereas interest and abilities in relation to physical age are actually very diverse and people increasingly refuse to conform. He spoke of the need to break from the traditional concept of retirement which has become the end of usefulness and the beginning of death.

Approaching this from the perspective of a businessman employing 100,000 staff worldwide in the energy industry, he can see four key points:

1. We can’t sustain the idea that everyone retires at the same age – which first came about when men started work at 13 and living to the age of 70 was exceptional. We live in a different world and for much longer. The countries in which we work need people to work longer to ensure that the balance between those working and those not doesn’t shift to the point where paying for it is intolerable. By 2010 23 percent of the UK population will be over 60 as a result of declining birthrates and life expectancy extending beyond 80. At the same time, we are encouraging more and more young people into further and higher education, so the ratio of workers to non-workers is falling year by year. Pension systems may differ across the world, but all depend on continued creation of wealth.

2. The world economy is changing too. 70 per cent of the economy is now based on services rather than manufacturing. It’s a knowledge economy and this is true across industries. So we can’t neglect experience. We can’t say “You’re now too old to be useful.”

“How can we afford” Browne said, “to learn things again and again just because we’ve decided that people have to stop work at a certain age”. He also pointed out that in the US people are retiring later and later – and productivity has increased.

3. The basic demographics of the energy industry. More than half of his employees are over 45. BP still needs engineers. Fewer people are studying mathematics at a higher level, so they are less likely to become engineers, but those that do are in enormous demand. The number of registered engineers falling. So there is every incentive for a company like BP to encourage people to stay on as long as possible.

4. A civilised society needs to overcome prejudice. We’ve come a long way on gender, race and aspects of lifestyle. Most places select people on the basis of merit, but it seems OK to say “We don’t want you if you’ve over 60.” Youth is synonymous with vitality and success and the future. Old is only seed as good when applied to art, furniture or alcohol. The cult of youth is very strong.

Waste is shocking and prejudice is intolerable, people should be given the choice – because some want to stop, but many don’t.

Lord Browne praised signs of progress. There are changes coming in legislation to allow people to drawing down funds from pensions and to improve accrual rates for state pensions. Age discrimination legislation is coming in the UK later this year. The upper age limit for unfair dismissal will be removed and there will be a duty to consider an employee’s request to keep working. This is all good, but the issue is only partly one of process – it’s also culture.

There are good signs, the appointment of Richard Lambert at the CBI recognises the qualities of being older. We at BP can’t change attitudes on our own, but we can show what can be done. We can respond to changing times, giving people choice. We can provide flexibility – the chance to stay on full- or part-time, and live on a combination of paid income and pension. We can give people the option to phase themselves out of the work they do or to change their role – becoming advisors rather than managers. BP is employing older people now as coaches, as sources of wisdom and experience who don’t have to work full-time to make a great contribution.

The key, Browne says, is the principle of mutual advantage and working to find a way of matching both sets of aspirations matching. There are complex issues of motivation as well as economics. It’s not just about 70-year-olds – it’s about how needs get met with flexibility throughout your working life to give you genuine choices.

There were then questions from the floor which is where my note-taking fell apart. I include the following to give a flavour of the discussion, but apologise if I misrepresent anyone’s question or point of view. [As ever, many of the “questions” were actually opportunities to make statements of support or dissent.]

Geoff Mulgan kicked off with asking about the difference between different types of jobs, manual labour as opposed to brain work.

JB: It’s important to recognise that those who have done physically demanding work throughout their life have a great understanding about how the organisation should be run – it’s about transferring what is really important – advising on automatic control systms depends on knowing how things really get done

Q: age-related redundancy isn’t civilised, we have to change this now.
JB: things don’t change rapidly or overnight – but we are making progress.

Q: Your own org is exemplary – but I picked up on something you said, that in 2 years you would be retiring. Is there a rigid rule in force in BP?
JB: We never finish business on anything, everything is a work in progrees and there will always be things that are going wrong. As for me it’s different – it’s about choice and tenure and succession and motivation – anyway I prefer to see it as life after first retirement.

Q: What does BP do for older people who are stuck in their own home?
JB: There is a limit to what non-governmental orgs can do – there is a big role for government to intervene when other societal forces fail. So what we do is set examples and accept that by doing so we’re contributing to things getting better. He can remember a time when it was difficult to talk about employing women. We got better at that. Race and colour embarrassed people too. Lifestyle and sexual preference is becoming less of a taboo and now we’re dealing with age.

Q: How do we spread things across business?
JB: There are changes coming in today – A-day. A huge distance to travel for people elsewhere. How can we spread things around? not by lecturing people, you will be tested by the single failure and people don’t take kindly to being told what to do. The best solution is to raise awareness through networks and local organisations.

Q: Anti-business crowd – how are they reacting to your egalitarian business model.
JB: Business needs to keep thinking about itself – to think about how it can serve human needs. Success comes this way. This purpose is not always talked about – we’re usually focused on profit and return, but business organisations can’t exist unless these needs are thought about. I don’t see this as being purely philanthropic, that’s the role of foundations – for business it’s about looking at what you’re really doing here to satisfy human needs.

Q: Volunteering – is there any evidence of an increased desire to volunteer with age
JB: I don’t know, but it should be age independent it’s not voluntary if its the only thing left to do.

Q: How do you deal with the political points in organisations?
JB: Change takes time and creates anxiety – that fear can dissipate over time if we talk about it. People say to me if I’ve only got 3 employees what can i do. I sa, “Think about the value of having someone who can guide you through”. All business try to learn – and the best way is through people – not through information technology what still works best is passing knowledge on through the oral tradition.

Q: How do we challenge the prejudice the other way – prejudices older people have against younger people.
JB: I don’t have a clear view but i am thinking about it. It varies around the world but the bottom line is saying how can we get rid of prejudice

Q: On the use of networks and awareness raising, we’re getting a new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights – what do you think the balance of encouragement, influence and enforcement should be?
JB: Well you’re right that it’s not just one of those things, it’s a combination. As an analogy, there are groups that still have to keep making the point that women should be treated on the same basis of merit as men – they keep asking the difficult questions and providing possible answers. This is a counterpart to the rules, the boundaries, it’s the ways to make the internals work. We can’t assume things will happen automatically.

Q: I’d like to keep talking about death, gender, family in relation to age.
JB: I agree and I’d like to talk more. My experience is that it’s rare inside corporations to talk about these things, especially death except when people have direct personal experience.

Q: At age X you have to stop working – to what degree do you see bp pushing that logic, and what things are you personally interested in?
JB: Lots of different things and variety is key. Not enough people ask how is the company meeting your needs – how do you maintain a relationship of mutual advantage. If it goes slightly wrong then performance goes wrong because people are anxious because they don’t know where they stand how they’re thought of etc. so the answer is to talk to people about how things are going and you ask people what it means to them and how they’d like to go forward. It’s so important to keep managers in “a good place”. A lot happens when there is big change in the world – managers can underestimate the intelligence of people under them when change is happening.

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3 thoughts on “John Browne from BP on Ageing and Age Discrimination”

  1. Interesting reading. I just posted on this topic with musing over my birthday but also thinking about things that had been said to me in workplaces that were pretty off-base assumptions about age.

    I had stumbled across the ageism policy statements of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (Canada) and it really got me thinking about the world that I have always wanted to live in–and that was one that welcomed the input of people of all ages.

  2. Despite the loss of experience and valuable skills which results from an enforced retirement, I am concerned about the impact loss of work has on an older persons’ confidence, the fact that their day may be devoid of social interaction with like minded people, enforced into what could be a more solitary existence and loneliness.

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