The role of an ageing workforce in the future of work

The role of an ageing workforce in the future of work

Working through images of older people and their role in the systems psychodynamics of organizational life.

This presentation was given by Fiddy Abraham to the ISPSO Symposium 2013: The Future of Work and the Work of our Future.

Legislation, economics and social attitudes in Western Union mean increasing numbers of older people will remain in the workplace. This paper considers what this might mean for the experience of organizational life from the perspective of older people.

The paper explores aspects of this phenomenon, including:

  • The role of older people in evoking and internalizing the projections of others in the workplace, drawing on contrasting models provided by Shakespeare’s King Lear and Tove Jansson’s ‘Grandmother’ in the Summer Book.
  • How scapegoating or idealizing images of older people are evoked as part of political agendas played out through the systems psychodynamics of organizational life, drawing on material generated by older people in a European bureaucracy and her own experience to explore how older people both contribute to and act out assigned roles in organizational life.
  • Organizational responses which might value older people’s contribution in relation to the primary task appropriately and offer space for working through projections and introjections which can disguise organizational issues and divert energy from the enterprise and the individual’s own needs.

The role of an ageing workforce in the future of work: working through images of older people and their role in the systems psychodynamics of organizational life. 

A paper delivered to the ISPSO Symposium 2013: The Future of Work and the Work of our Future 

Fiddy Abraham, Principal Researcher / Consultant (TIHR)


Shakespeares play King Lear tells the story of a man who attempts to bring an arbitrary end to his role in the world and provides a strong feeling of the unpredictability of the future when we try to make the ‘clean break’, the ‘getaway’ or the rational choice. 

This paper is about the role of older people in the life of organizations, both conscious and unconscious and the meaning they have for the organization, both as value and in representing organizational issues. It has been quite difficult to find the right tone for this paper so perhaps I should say at the outset that this is a rather personal narrative. The paper draws on material collected by myself and my former colleague Kari Hadjivassiliou through interviews and focus groups with staff of 50 years and over at the European Commission in 2008. 

I was not involved in subsequent stages of this project and for various reasons some of which I will refer to in the course of this paper — I felt myself rather dissociated from the dilemmas and difficulties of this group of people and it took a long time to work through that feeling to a point where I empathized and associated my own experience with theirs. This was the starting point for a re-examination of this material and reflection of my own experience in my organizational setting as an older staff member, informed by the struggles in exiting their roles of Shakespeares King Lear and the Grandmother in Tove Janssons Summer Book.

The psycho-analytic traditions of my organizational home for 37 years (TIHR) systems psychodynamics — will be well known to many of this audience and is so embedded in my working practice as to be unconscious to me but was at the forefront of my mind as I had just delivered a chapter on The Tavistock Group as part of The Oxford Handbook of Management Theorists, published this February. My colleague Jean Neumann’s description of systems psychodynamics as being mobilised by political organizational change (Neumann in Vince and French), relates to her recent piece on Lewins idea of contemporaneity as the criterion or yardstick for judging the relevance of particular organizational issues. 

Certainly the timing, in October 2011, of well-intended, and personally welcome, legislation to outlaw the summary retirement of older staff in EU countries one might term it the organizational euthanasia of older people - coincided with a global economic downturn which squeezes the opportunities for following generations and this is currently being wrestled with across many organizations. The impact on organizational life of the much greater numbers of older people in the workplace poses dilemmas for inter-generational relatedness and relationships within organizations. This issue is alive and current and warrants more attention to reach a deeper understanding. But above all, my concern is around how the contribution of older people in intergenerational organizational life can have value, both for older people themselves and for the organization, without getting stuck in institutionalized roles and positions. 

Over 50: the experience of being redundant while in post 

Staff over 50 reported to us their sense of being discriminated against due to their age. 

The EC does not want my expertise because it promotes younger people.

Male D.

Most of the staff over 50 whom Kari Hadjivassiliou and I talked to reported similar experiences to this man.

At the end of your career at the EC you feel under-utilised and under-valued as well as under-motivated and under-stimulated... friends of mine in other DGs, including former HoUs, have been put on the side, were made advisors, have beautiful offices, etc, but their potential is being wasted for political reasons

Female F.

Older people were clearly being singled out for different treatment in taken-for-granted, routinized and, I would argue, probably unconscious management behaviour. 

(When trying to join another DG) Although at the interview I was told I was a strong candidate I was also asked how I could cope working in that particular Unit where most of the people were very young and of much lower grades. 

Faced with widely practiced and accepted discrimination against them, staff often responded individually by taking personal responsibility for mitigating possible impacts of their age, rather than by seeing this as an organizational weakness. 

When I worked for a younger boss, he realized that age can be an issue. Indeed I myself went through a crisis and started to ask myself what was wrong with me? I thought my skills were obsolete, my physical capability was less than before. So I went back to school and acquired more knowledge and qualifications assets. I also started to explore who was going to be my next boss. Now I try to keep fit both physically and intellectually.

The skills of deliberation and judgement required by the fonctionnaire is somehow seen as requiring new labels and physique rather than twenty odd years practice that these staff members bring. The kind of attributes of older staff — understanding when something wouldn’t work because they have seen it tried before was one example given — was not being valued, even found awkward and definitely unwanted. 

When the Head of Unit is young, they may have second thoughts and concerns about taking on an older person. The latter may be perceived as not as amenable and flexible as a younger person and can also be viewed as a threat. ! the younger person may appear the easy option. So I am mindful not to be scary so as not to make it so difficult for myself. (Author’s emphasis)

There were two organizational changes at the time of our study to which these staff referred as explanations for this treatment: the Kinnock Reforms of 2004 were intended to reduce costs and give more flexibility and transparency to the European Administration 1 achieved by outsourcing scores of functions, including security guards and cooks who previously had secure posts for life, creating temporary posts to bypass the existing staff group and introduce performance-related pay (and its perhaps instructive to find that Kinnock was as dirty a word in Brussels as Thatcher was in some UK circles). 50 plus staff could be and were carrying projections of being resistant to change, described as entrenched in their personal interests, as if no-one else in the organization had personal interests in keeping their posts and many older staff introjected these caricatures of their group, themselves referring to their golden handshake making leaving difficult. 

However, the core group of 50 plus staff included those who joined the Commission not just for the perks of the job, less potent when all staff came from the six high-pay economies of its original member states, but for the post-war European project which it represented and which was under attack from their political and managerial leaders. So, 50 plus staff in the Commission were carrying the projections not only of being incompetent, feeble, with out-of-date knowledge, personally scary, materially corrupted by their jobs for life, but also holding onto an historically defunct idealism. However, this particular projection was one which was more positively accepted by many of these staff members who had begun group meetings across Directorates General to revive the European spirit of the post-war years.

The second accompanying organizational change related to the expansion of the EU by 10 new member states, adding to the now-15, in 2004, all of whom required to be represented in the composition of European Commission posts, a situation which the old-guard 50 plusses resigned themselves to. 

The consequence of resignation in organizational life in older people is perhaps obvious and inevitable. Unlikely to find another job inside or outside the Commission, professional aims tend to narrow. 

As time goes by, ones sense of timing is changing. When one is in their 30s or 40s, they do much care sacrificing other things, eg personal interests, in the interest of their work. As one grows older, one feels that there is not time to do what is important to them a sense of urgency so one starts to prioritise what one can really devote oneself to and where one can contribute most meaningfully. One becomes highly focused, have a sense of priority and make my contribution selectively.

Withdrawal into the personal domain often a form of dissociation and burnout becomes increasingly attractive to some. 

Six years ago I was an Acting Head of Unit and my DG said I should become a Deputy Head of Unit. This did not happen so now I find myself doing the same job I was doing 16 years ago. So my job is easy and I can do it with my eyes closed, but this means that I am not challenged work-wise and the EC does not get the best out of him. In order to compensate for this lack of stimulus at work I am now pursuing my own personal interest in Physics.

Male D, see below

The dynamic generated by the Kinnock reforms towards the 50 plus group, I understand as a political strategy on the part of the Commission towards the national politicians but also as a social defence against the anxiety of nonsurvival of the institution. A more collective response involved such staff organizing meetings celebrating European unity seemed to me to be appropriate and healthy for the group and also for the organization more generally, something I will return to later in the paper. On the other hand the withdrawals and introjections, while defending the individuals against the pain of rejection and loss of role, seem to me to be an absolute loss to the organization and its members of all generations.

Revisiting the 50 plus material at 65 years

I mentioned at the start of this paper that I was conscious of feeling somewhat dissociated from the material of these interviews and group interviews in the period following my involvement in this study, although during the interviews I felt highly involved. I rationalized this as due to the natural ebb and flow of my professional and personal life. In addition, I did not hold the contract for this piece of work and there were other activities which ensued, including a survey, in which I desired no part. My experience with this project retreated from figure to ground. 

But I also recognized at some level that my dissociation was partly an expression of my own ego: I wasn’t feeling my age when I undertook the work; I wasn’t in an organization which projected age-related inadequacies onto me — incompetence, feebleness, with out-of-date knowledge, personally scary, materially corrupted by my job for life, and holding onto an historically defunct ethos. On the contrary I was still in organization which had always valued ageing staff, while they were often to be found on its margins. 

Five years on, I notice not only experiencing receiving all these projections but also my collusion in them by providing an identity which can attract them; an eye for accuracy in language for example, which can be experienced as severe or reproving in todays organization in which a younger generation needs encouragement. So there is some sense of being captured by the projections and desires of others, half aware of introjecting them and being doomed to act them out. 

A question I have for myself is the extent to which the possible valency is merely an attribute of age. By the time we get to 65 we have, at some level which oscillates between being unconscious and all too conscious, at least some idea that the fun were having in life wont be lasting for ever and perhaps this makes us over-sensitive to the rough and tumble of organizational life. 

In my case, as a member of an organization which has profoundly changed — I could say adapted to change — over the 37 years Ive worked in it, Ive had many different identities and work activities, entailing the loss of previous ones along the way. Each time I have felt myself metaphorically being nudged towards the EXIT sign, I have experienced some pain and loss but so far each time the new management regime and I have accommodated to one another. The difference between then and now is that I might not have so many alternative organizational homes as those which were clearer to me at earlier stages. So I might be readier to agree that Im weaker, gratefully accept the offers of help with my luggage, a more comfortable bed or chair, from compassionate younger colleagues. But I can also feel patronized sometimes and unwillingly exposed when younger colleagues effectively pet me in public. And do I, feeling vulnerable to weakness and wanting to assert my continuing vigour, also get invited to express professional values of rigour, accuracy and scrupulousness on behalf of others?

For most of my time at TIHR I was a staff member moving through junior and middle ranks in an organization led by older men, a woman balancing work with bringing up a family. In this role vigorous expression of views was for many years perceived as welcomed, its energy perhaps perceived as commitment to the organization. As an old woman with white hair in an organization of much younger people, vigorous expression may all of a sudden perceived as dominating, perhaps even domineering, while taking a back seat might be perceived as being on the way out. 

In relation to the 50 plus project, a new, young Director encouraged new young staff, who had undertaken a follow-up survey to the interviews and focus groups, to write up the project data and relate it to applications of systems psychodynamics theory such as Elliot Jacques’ ideas on social defences against anxiety applied by Isobel Menzies. I waited a long time before these younger staff members abandoned their efforts — several years — before returning to the data, in deference to their needs and to the wishes of a new younger Director. If this sounds calculated, it didn’t feel that way and there are always other activities to get involved in. But It did feel as if my rights to data I had collected were delegitimized over this period and it felt undermining. Not that I failed to recognize the needs of the organization to move on and for the Director to facilitate young incomers to take ownership of the work or feel immune to some guilt towards these colleagues which I had to overcome in returning to this data.

This is just a single example of how the organisational member gets caught up in organisational agendas. As a survivor of many past eras in my organization, I feel the loss of many past collaborators. While some like to work alone, and often I do too, the value to the work of collaboration is that it takes the work further, it challenges and enriches the ideas. But feeling a sometimes lonely champion of forgotten schools of thought and action I still value, I continue to find myself in a struggle to articulate their value and their continuation from a weakening position. 

Making sense of being old through cultural role models 

I have been trying to make sense of being old through my prior understanding of what old means to me. The old people in art and literature framed in relation to age and work sharply highlight the issues involved. And even our experience of older relatives may be perceived in relation to cultural role models. In my case, the strongest ones are, since 1961, Shakespeare’s King Lear and most recently and currently, the Grandmother in Tove Jansson’s Summer Book. I have many others and you will have your own and you might say, why choose these. For me, each has a strongly intergenerational aspect to their struggles with their age wanting to pass the baton to following generations and both provide an appraisal of the internal and external aspects of letting go a role-in-the-world, which is also experienced through organizational settings.

In some ways these characters might seem to provide contrasts: the violently expressed feelings and resentment and despotic characteristics of King Lear versus the more nurturing role of the Grandmother, at peace with her family. 

It is Lear’s character his strong feelings and his wrongheadedness in the way he goes about trying to control the future by relinquishing his role which has resonance for me. Lear cares passionately about himself and his own interests, constructed as the interests of his country, and this makes him vulnerable. He is capable of feeling intense pain, perhaps the intense pain of knowing there will be no more chances in life, to put things right, to reconcile. Of course Lear has an autocratic power at the beginning of the play which makes his case exceptional and also means he can express his anger openly and despotically, railing against those who are against him, rather than withdrawing in quiet bitterness a potentially and actually dangerous man until the destruction of his power base. And, as someone who has never needed to hide his emotions, this makes his quiet sorrow and penitence somehow feel more honest when we finally glimpse it. When he says to Cordelia: 

We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. 

...this feels like the truthful expression of his desire, albeit very different from the man we see at the start of the play. Perhaps above all, Lear provides an illustration of over-reliance on rationality and will in deciding when to leave his role, without confronting the loss of power and influence it will entail. 

For me, in my organizational role, I too feel strongly about my interests — in the sense of the work I most value — and experience others in my organization, perhaps the organization as a whole, not valuing or perhaps even perceiving the distinctions I make between doing the work one way or another. I definitely feel as if I rail at this neglect. And though my power has never been so much, everyones, even a kings, is limited by age. Against this, a reconciliation of the completeness of Lears with Cordelia is present as a desire but also as a seduction away from loyalty to the task, which is primary in organizational life if not in personal life too. 

Jansson’s Grandmother on the other hand, seems further down the line towards accepting her demise. 

It was August, and the weather was sometimes stormy and sometimes nice, but for Grandmother, no matter what happened, it was only time on top of time, since everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.

The Summer Book, p.133

She has not yet entirely relinquished her role in the survival of the family however, still helping with the nets when another pair of hands is needed. And within herself Grandmother still feels her emotions keenly, despite having always been a ‘good girl’.

Wise as she was, she realised that people can postpone their rebellious phases until theyre eighty-five years old, and she decided to keep an eye on herself.

The Summer Book, p.108

Grandmother notices how hard it is to stand back and let others make their own way, repeating the mistakes of those who had to find their own way before. For example, when her new neighbor Malander tells her he will, of course build a dock in time, she finds herself telling him not to build a dock because it will be broken up by the ice. And then reflects, exhausted by herself and him,

There I go again. I’m always such a busybody when I’m tired. Of course he’ll try to build a dock. Everyone does. We did, too.

The Summer Book, p.104

Her reconciliation with Verner, the old friend who comes to visit her contrasts with Lear and Cordelias. Grandmother doesnt quite feel pleased at the prospect of this visit, reminded of past differences and irritations (The Summer Book, p.137). Like always drinking his preferred sherry, which she has never mentioned she dislikes. But the visit goes well and her friend reveals that sherry was a drink he had never really liked but only valued in conjunction with the memories they shared, which were very dear to him (The Summer Book, p.138). And Verner highlights the major task of this part of her life, her care for her granddaughter. 

While Lear approaches his ending more dramatically and proactively than Grandmother, both are concerned with the same life stage, which concerns the interdependence of generations. It is perhaps in the different ways in which Lear and Grandmother approach their endings that we can see where we might achieve not just alternatives but also more layered and enhanced understandings of how we approach our own exits. Lear attempts to create an arbitrary final exit from his role, expecting thereby to retain a critical influence over the decisions that matter, versus Grandmothers trial and error approach. 


In the accounts of staff over 50 at the EU, the personal anxieties attendant on old age, felt or projected by societal expectations and norms are all present, interact with those generated by internal organizational change issues and may also set them off. But the role of older people in the organization is highlighted by the fact that they are (mostly) visible as a group and quite likely to attract child-to-parent projections from other groups and, perhaps sometimes be captured by them.

The relationship between senior managers and younger staff is naturally less fraught with rivalry. Older people in organizations are bound to represent, for new management regimes, agendas and interests of the organizations past. As such they must often be seen as obstacles — resistant to change — to new managers and leaders developing their own legacies. Living through past regimes of different kinds makes us less enthusiastic about new management ideas when we have seen similar notions in the past and know the costs they bring and how they can bring unintended consequences. And being less enthusiastic makes us seem jaded, cynical or downbeat and therefore less popular with organizational managers find this quality more readily in younger staff. 

But turned on its head, the knowledge and experience of previous innovation also means that the older people in an organization know how or why things didnt work out in the past and may hold the key to how they could be made to work, if senior managers ask them. Consultation and making sense of past experience in terms of the contemporaneous issues in organizational life can mobilise support from older staff. 

Of course, not all new regimes are hostile to older peoples interests; they may also bring unexpected rewards and welcome new opportunities, though with inevitably diminishing returns. For the sympathetic and appreciative manager of an older workforce, though, it can be disconcerting to see the double messages from older people about their commitment to the future, unsure if your performers are about to deliver a star turn or something less welcome. While this can be as true for staff at any age, performance is bound to feel more precarious in older staff and most managers have to plan with an eye to the future. 

To define older people as a class is to identify a group which can be unconsciously scapegoated or neglected. I have heard managers speak of the limitations in skills of older people, as if younger people have no limitations and as if having younger people replace them will solve this problem, which of course it may, although not necessarily without importing new problems. Upskilling for working life is a continuing issue for staff at all levels and points in their career. In scapegoating older people, we import the polarities of the external environment, especially social policy, that blunt instrument which tries to balance its budgets by penalizing one generation or another without really understanding and supporting their interdependence. In fact organizations need the skills and knowledge of older people alongside the skills and energy of younger generations, and the organizational capability which needs to be cultivated is in understanding how to bring these together productively.


  1. http://eurotechnocrat.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/kinnock-reform.html downloaded 09/05/2013


10 Jean Neumann, 1999 Systems Psychodynamics in the Service of Political Organizational Change in Russell Vince and Robert French (eds) Group Relations, Management, and Organization. Oxford: OUP. 

Jean Neumann, 2012. Kurt Lewin’s Contemporaneity Rule

Tove Jansson, 1972, The Summer Book, republished 2003; London: Sort of Books 

William Shakespeare, King Lear

Eurocrat: Inside Stories from the European Commission 2009. The Kinnock Reform. http://eurotechnocrat.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/kinnock-reform.html downloaded 09/05/2013

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