Over the Hill and Under the Radar: Are we ready to change our ideas about the Creative Industries talent pool?


Here come the Silver Learners and our industries will soon depend on them.

The New Old Entrants:

In her book Learning Futures (Routledge 2011) educationalist Keri Facer talks of the need to reinvent Schools for a new demographic landscape. She points out one of the drivers of change we will need to accommodate is an aging population of learners, and the need for what we might call a new intergenerational contract.

Traditionally our image of a new entrant into our industries has been that of youth, streaming out of schools and colleges to take roles and work their way upwards, like energetic young salmon swimming upstream. Every year this supply presents itself like a seasonal certainty. What we haven’t realised is that stream is thinning, and the number of young people is actually dwindling.

Increasingly in their place a new silver learner is emerging, and we aren’t yet addressing this. Since most of our education system is predicated towards what we call the ‘new millennials’ or ‘digital natives’, -digitally savvy young people- we have a blind spot about learning and teaching modes for the older generation. This may be a bigger educational issue than we think.

Currently we are on the cusp of seeing the impact of two megatrends; firstly low and declining fertility rates in both Britain and Europe. This is amplified by rising longevity, with people living longer through improvements in health, diet and preventative care.

The population pyramid we are accustomed to- that of many children at the base and a narrowing number of increasingly older adults at the tip is now distorted and anachronistic. Currently less than 15% of the UK population are children. A ‘bulge’ of baby boomers ( born during a period of rapid population growth and social change between 1946-64, with 17m births recorded in Britain alone during this period ) is working its way upwards through population graphs. In fact by 2007 the pyramid model was already well and truly broken. This was the year that people in Britain aged over 65 outnumbered those under 16 for the first time ever in our history. What was a distortion is now the orthodoxy, as this shift moves relentlessly up the age ladder. In 2001 there were 4 people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain. By 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just 2.  If we think of this tiny cohort as being on the escalator through our education system to be future workers, that’s worrying.

Professor Harper, Oxford

Professor Harper, Oxford

Professor Sarah Harper, University of Oxford’s first Professor of Gerontology, states “By 2030, half the population of Western Europe will be over 50, one quarter of the population of the developed world will be over 65, and one quarter of the population of Asia will be over 60.  This is historically unprecedented. Indeed, it makes the 20th century the last century of youth”

Dr. George W. Leeson, co-editor of the Journal of Population Ageing, notes “In 2006 there were 10,000 people in the UK aged 100 years and over. By 2056, this number is expected to increase to an astonishing 286,000 and to around 1 million by the end of the 21st century” (“Later Life and education ; changes and challenges” 2009). According to Leeson’s colleague Kenneth Howse at the Oxford Institute of Ageing, by as soon as 2025 one in five people in the UK population will be aged 65 years or more. By 2050 it will be almost one in four.


Coming of Age:

We’re all aware that we’re living longer. In 1851 half the population didn’t make it to 45 years, whilst in 2011 half the population lives longer than 85. Traditionally UK education policy has been developed in the context of that traditional pyramidal population structure, and elicits a linear transition where learning tails off and your career takes over in your twenties. We now have the emerging challenge of devising education for the new demography, an inverted pyramid. Looking ahead, what will this mean for education, training and skills in the UK, especially in the creative industries? We can make some educated guesses at the implications below.

I list below some of the trends that might emerge from this population shift, which isn’t so far away. Most research seems to point to 2030 as a kind of tipping point. It’s important to realise that whilst the trends outlined below may prove incorrect in terms of timbre or shade of impact, nevertheless we are on a conveyor belt to this new Silver Learner Age– that’s a certainty, and we need to plan for it.


1Trend one: The 70 year old incumbent isn’t going anywhere

Increasingly, those now entering and swelling the ranks of the elderly will have to keep working for longer- as they will be poorer than the generation above them, without pensions and rock-steady equity to cushion them. The kind of jobs they choose and the tenacity and duration with which they hold on to them will cause a lack of ‘succession’ opportunities for younger workers, who have always replaced and replenished job roles vacated by retiring sixtysomethings.

Eurobarometer opinion polls, which survey 1,000 citizens in each of the 27 EU members, show that political and economic preferences vary with age. Older voters are less satisfied with their lives and more pessimistic about the economic future. They’ll hold on to those jobs for longer.telegraph_couk_silversurfer

2Trend two: More competition for a dwindling group of young people

We’re already seeing the demand for health and social care workers in more developed countries increasing, and this is set to increase further at the same time as the supply of younger workers will tighten. There’ll be less young talent around for the creative industries, and more competition between sectors. Healthcare wages may increase whilst creative industries will continue to fall among young people, as it becomes an increasingly unstable option in comparison.

Each sector will need to appeal to an ever more mature workforce. Industries who currently rely on school leavers for instance, will need to start developing strategies for appealing to those in their early twenties as the talent pool therein shrinks, gradually chasing the demographic tide upwards. One might assume a more mature workforce is a more discerning workforce too, who won’t feel the allure of the ‘stardust factor’ of the creative sector like young people.

3Trend Three: The “Young Free and Single” freelancer: RIP

There’s an immediate impact on some of the creative industries, which are currently supported by a heavily freelance base, and typically a single, no-ties workforce, able to work flexibly and gleefully into the early hours or weekend at the drop of a hat. As the workforce gets older, marries and has children, this kind of work doesn’t seem so attractive. We know there is much attrition as people’s values and ambitions change as they build homes and families together. The shrinkage of the youthful wellspring of the freelance market, and the constricted numbers of those willing to ‘crunch’ to meet deadlines will possibly mean a reorganisation and rationalisation of how certain creative sectors work. It’s not clear how successful the industry’s usual solution to skills gaps will be in this case- namely to offshore freelancers.

4Trend Four: A parallel skills system

The question of how parents will choose to integrate both family and working life, achieving balance between flexibility and security to bring up their children, and simultaneously train and update their own skills will be especially acute for the creative industries. If you think this is already a problem in film, tv and games then it’s going to get worse. Across Europe population ageing is bringing about such large changes in the relative size of these generational groupings that policy-makers will have to re-consider the learning institutions that consume tax-payers contributions. The education and training agenda may shift away from schools and colleges as we know them to teaching in the home and workplace. Meanwhile declining fertility affects the collective capacity of society to provide these goods and assist with the problems that face the ageing individual.

This is not such a problem if countervailing automation and digitisation are harnessed, but there appears to be little concerted national action at the moment. In her essay “Generations and Life Course: the impact of demographic challenges on education 2010-2050” Sarah Harper claims “There are now growing moves to recruit, retain and retrain that generation of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are increasingly being seen as essential to retaining Europe’s economic competitiveness as the upcoming skills shortage washes across the region”. As we’ll see, if we don’t utilise such talent, then China will.

5Trend Five: Silver resources

This brings us on to how we might need to reassign resources. We’ll need to decide what is an appropriate balance between investing in schools and university education, and in reflexive adult and lifelong training schemes. Will increasingly older voters have a different perspective, wanting more resources for their own learning, at the expense of the younger generation?

beginning is nearThere’s a few safe assumptions to make. Since no-one imagines the pace of change in the job market will let up, lifelong learning will rise in importance, and post-university training will no longer be seen as mere topping up. Schools will need to become intergenerational community hubs, and andragogy will replace pedagogy. This new grey generation will live longer but be poorer than their parents. Corporations will step in and look after their own reskilling needs. Industries like the creative industries which lack a wide array of large corporate interests that can plan cohesive training programmes at scale may find it difficult to upgrade their own in-house talent supply.

6Trend Six: Erring on the side of caution or the stagnation of innovation?

As the greying population boom sees the impetuousness of youth sidelined, whither innovation and risk in the economy? Start-ups are essentially typified as young ventures by entrepreneurs who don’t yet have a family life to sacrifice. They often show a confidence that only comes from a lack of knowing where boundaries are. The increase in conservatism that parallels the onset of age is well documented. Would the comfortably well-off mature worker be as willing to risk their worldly assets for a dream as the fearless young person with nothing to lose?

Alternately one might see more companies created by the collective wisdom of more experienced business people, driven by more considered and mature business plans with realistic projections.

FiveHourscoverProfessor Tom Kirkwood, who leads Newcastle University’s Initiative on Changing Age, commenting on NESTAs recent “5 hours a day: systemic innovation for an ageing population” (February 2013) report said “Although everyone knows that lifespans are getting longer, few yet appreciate just how radical a change is ahead. When I began expressing the rate as an increase of five hours a day, which if anything is on the conservative side, it seemed to help focus minds”.

Nesta is already supporting a number of innovations in ageing and is planning to launch a new programme of work on ageing in the summer of 2013.

7Trend Seven: A matriarchy of high level skills

A side effect of the new gerontocracy might be a shift in gender, although one would hope the current imbalance that exists in the creative industries today would be corrected long before the projected mortality rates make a difference.

Credit: guardian.co.uk

Credit: guardian.co.uk

The life expectancy of a 65 year old woman in the UK is now 19.7 years, almost 3 years longer than that of a 65 year old man. It is not surprising, then, that among the oldest age groups in the population (85 years+) women outnumber men by more than two to one, nor that nine out of every ten centenarians in this country are female. In the future the older your workforce, the more likely they’ll be women.

8Trend Eight: The Creative Industries takes the silver shilling

Those early internet or digital media consumers will be in their sixties by 2030. They’ll be a significant part of the 15.5m UK citizens over 65. It’s estimated the spending power of the ‘silver economy’ will grow from £79bn currently to £127bn in the same timeframe. In the end the silver pound and the silver vote will dictate education policy and will morph the products and services of all our industries, but with many particular ramifications for the creative sector. Some would say the kind of products and services that the creative industries produce will shift away from the garish and novel. Design will be ergonomic, not brash. We may need a new psychology of the older consumer. Focus groups of youths and appeals to young trendspotters and alpha consumers will diminish. Will today’s teenagers take their relationships to brands with them into their middle age, for instance?

9Trend Nine: China wants YOU

Europe isn’t a good place to attract skills from. In 2014 there will be more people leaving (60-64 year olds) the job market than entering (20-24 year olds). Globalisation will march on, but we might be out manoeuvred. China is the only country in the world currently mapping its workforce demand and planning its occupational structure by age. Central planning means it knows what year it will have a downturn in skills and what they are. Naturally, it will then start cherry-picking and importing the talent it needs according to Professor Sarah Harper. It’s predicted that Latin America will feel the pull first, but the brain drain will soon be felt in the US and Europe. Tomorrow’s students will increasingly be pulled east, and the wisdom of our elder creative practitioners will be targeted. Imagine a seventy year old Jonny Ive or Peter Molyneux being lured east, taking with them the high level design skills to kickstart whole new industries.


Trend Ten: Adult Education is THE Education

Neuroscience will continue to inform new processes of learning, but whereas it has concentrated on the ‘neuroplastic’ younger learner it will increasingly contribute to a new form of adult (Androgogic) education. Research indicates that mental development, brain capacity, and longevity are closely associated, so education contributes to an active healthy life.

Our traditional thinking of skills upgrading and employment will change. As new cohorts enter the workplace, they will increasingly be accustomed to regular and continual skills upgrading to keep pace with technological developments and demands. This form of education will become an essential requirement of the modern workplace, and its provision needs to be negotiated between employers, governments and individuals. The Creative Industries traditionally has relied on ad-hoc and ‘just in time’ training. This kind of training may not be tolerated in the future as employers take a longer view of their careers or personal development.

A Sunset clause:

Whilst it is always interesting to play futurology, the most surprising aspect of the research I’ve uncovered is how little we are preparing for this cultural and economic shift towards what might be called a benign new gerontocracy. Most institutions debating it seem to have Aging or some variant in their name, and thus can be painted as special interest. Many of the statistics in this article refer to 2030, which is only 16.5 years away. The Creative Industries in particular have always been accused of lacking in long-term thinking and planning, and in a recession maybe that’s understandable. Probably the best thing we can do is ensure that those working today in the creative sector see a long and stable future ahead and increasingly flexible skills and training support. In the future, where you are as young as you feel, the enriched life experiences and perspective the older worker brings to the workplace (whatever that will be) may well transform our youth oriented and juvenescent industries into silver learner world leaders, and also net importers of wisdom.

Image Courtesy NESTA

Image Courtesy NESTA


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