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- On Growing Older, Becoming Bolder and Teaching On
On Growing Older, Becoming Bolder and Teaching On
Valéria França is an ELT professional, educator and researcher based in Brazil. She was the Head of Teacher Development at Cultura Inglesa Brazil for over 15 years and has now just taken on the position of Head of the newly founded Edify Teacher Education Institute. She was the President of the BRAZ-TESOL teacher association in and is also a member of the Visual Arts Circle. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Much human experience, when one comes to think about it, is a matter of layering. We understand the present by comparing it with the past – layer upon layer – then we think about it afterwards, adding more and more layers. As we do, our angle of vision changes.” (Gayford, p. 115, 2011)
For the book A bigger message: conversations with David Hockney, author Martin Gayford interviewed the British artist David Hockney and explored a number of topics. The quotation above refers to how Hockney sees the difference between painting and photography. According to him, photography does not go beyond present time and only captures a single perspective. Painting, on the other hand, allows for greater depth, since it allows for a process of layering whilst the painter works. Time takes on a new dimension and this allows for the emergence of multiple perspectives.
This concept of layering and adding different perspectives to how we look at things is something that I particularly cherish as I look back at my own professional and personal life. Having worked as an educator for over 28 years, I am aware that the chronology of my working life, itemised on my CV, does not translate the journey I have undertaken over the years; the emotional growth I have experienced; the professional expertise I have amassed and the insights I have gained from working with people. I am privileged to be constituted by so many layers.
Yet, to be able to talk about all these layers means that I am also talking about growing older, becoming more mature and ageing. This article will explore the psychological and social implications of being an older and ageing professional in the ELT market today; how representative this is of world demographic tendencies and what action and approaches individual professionals and employers can take in view of this all.
On growing older: am I ageing?
Growing older as a teacher or professional in the ELT industry is an experience many of us may be going through, however it is rarely talked about openly. In a society in which the constant flux of change has become the norm, in which everything fast and furious is valued and in which all things young are extoled, how do ageing professionals fit in? Do we still have a role to play? Are employers interested in us at all?
These are questions I have been asking myself for over a year or two. This was largely prompted by the fact that I now find myself well within the age bracket that is referred to as being “middle aged”, which is roughly when one is aged between 45 to 60. Whilst we may be hesitant to acknowledge this, in terms of evolutionary biology, once we enter middle age, we are most certainly starting a process of ageing. Researchers do not necessarily define ageing as an age-related process, but rather a “[…] time-related deterioration of the physiological functions necessary for survival and fertility […]” (Gilbert, 2000) and a “[…] decline or loss (a “de-tuning”) of adaptation with increasing age […]” (Flatt, 2012). However, what is also clear today is that each person’s subjective age (how each individual experience themselves as younger or older) significantly affects the neurobiological process of ageing (Kwak, Kim, Chey & Youm, 2018).
This concept of subjective age, how we see ourselves and how others see us, is crucial in this whole discussion of growing older and remaining professionally active. It also reminds me of a short story by A.S. Byatt, Medusa’s Ankles, in which Susannah, a lecturer, becomes all too aware of her middle agedness and ends up throwing a tantrum in the salon, lobbing pots of hair gel at the salon mirrors. Deirdre, the trainee hairdresser, finishes blow-drying Susannah’s hair,
‘There,’ said Deidre. ‘That’s nice. I’ll just get a mirror.’
‘It isn’t nice,’ said Susannah. ‘It’s hideous,’
There was a hush in the salon. Deirdre turned a terrified gaze on Lucian.
‘She did it better than I do, dear,’ he said, ‘She gave it a bit of lift. That’s what they all want, these days, I think you look really nice.’
‘It’s horrible,’ said Susannah. ‘I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do.”
She could see them all looking at each other, sharing the knowledge that this was exactly what she was. (Byatt, p.23)
The clarity of understanding that you are ageing is not a reality we like to face. It is something that many colleagues grapple with at one level or another, but we fear talking about it.
On ageing and company culture change
There are, however, moments in which this fear becomes heightened and bursts out into the open. This may happen if the institution you work for undergoes administrative changes and the workplace ethos is overhauled.
A year and a half ago, the language institution I work for was bought by an investment fund and we experienced a complete change in the organisational structure of the company. A previously highly hierarchical company, in which promotion was largely based on age-related competency and personal preferences, began to be run under a meritocratic system. The academic and teaching teams remained largely the same, so at this level know-how was retained.
However, it became clear that age, tenure and promotion were no longer related. Middle management was changed with a clear preference for a younger professional, with promising managerial talent. Older professionals, baby-boomers (born between 1946-1964) and generation X (born between 1965-1976), found themselves being managed by newly-hired millennials (born between 1977-1995). This change affected teachers, DoS’s, managers and admin staff. It has taken some time for everyone to adapt and we are all finding our way around the changes, which were sudden and quite new to everyone.
This is a scenario which I believe has recently affected many professionals within the ELT field in Brazil in which similar company culture changes have occurred, much in the same way as it has affected many professionals across the world (Knowledge@Wharton, 2018). From the viewpoint of the baby-boomers and generation x, their experience and solid academic and technical know-how, which had been their professional trump card for so long, suddenly seemed to be an irrelevant pre-requisite. Many older professionals have felt that they have been pushed aside and out of the market in favour of a younger professional, who can deal with the pressure of the need for higher corporate profit, faster technological change, longer working hours and the ability to adapt and change at incredibly fast rates.
To draw on the example given at the start of this article, the feeling is that there is a clear preference for the photo, the selfie, with a single perspective, rather than the painting, with its layers of multiplicity. This may, indeed, be something which many ELT professionals may be experiencing.
However, it is important to be aware that management professionals are already showing that companies which do not ensure a balance in its workforce between the different generations are likely to flounder, because the transfer of know-how needed to run the business can be severely impaired.
A millennial employee may earn three times less than an older employee. In today’s world of recession and financial instability, the need for companies to reduce their payroll is undeniable. However, according to Stephany Creary, professor at Wharton Management School, a saving in the payroll by hiring less experienced staff at the cost of firing more experienced professionals may lead to a loss in profit in the short-run if this comes at the cost of losing the company’s institutional memory.
What is clear is that the there is no going back to a model in which career progression and professional development was based on chronological time and experience. What seems to be obvious is that the different generations will have to learn how to work collaboratively and employers will need to ensure a balance in the workforce so that society can benefit from the professional contribution which all age groups can add.
On becoming bolder: ageing and world statistics
We can, however, only understand this whole issue of ageing and the workplace if we look ahead at what will happen demographically to the world.
The United Nations World Population Prospects document, revised in 2017, makes it clear that the fastest demographic change happening in the world today is the growth of the over 60 population. We can expect the following changes:
2017 – estimated 962 million people over 60 – 13% of the global population
2030 – estimated 1.4 billion people over 60
2050 – estimated 2.1 billion people over 60 (United Nations, 2017, p.11)
This change in the growth of the over 60 population is happening at such a fast rate that in countries such as Brazil, this demographic change will take place in 20 years, whilst in countries such as France this took over a hundred years to happen (WHO fact sheet, 2018). The impact of this change in society and in the workplace cannot be ignored.
The understanding that this demographic change was due to happen led the United Nations, as early as 2002, to create a Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing which was intended to be an action plan to help society and institutions to face the challenges which an ageing population would bring in the 21st century.
Based on the overriding human right of leaving no one behind, the document clearly stated the need for society to comprehend that older people needed to be seen as an asset to society. Two of the document’s articles drew my attention:
The expectations of older persons and the economic needs of society demand that older persons be able to participate in the economic, political, social and cultural life of their societies. Older persons should have the opportunity to work for as long as they wish and are able to, in satisfying and productive work, continuing to have access to education and training programmes.
We recognize the need to strengthen solidarity among generations and intergenerational partnerships, keeping in mind the particular needs of both older and younger ones, and to encourage mutually responsive relationships between generations. (United Nations, 2002)
A way forward: teaching on
The question is, how do we as ELT professionals weather the myriad of current organizational changes happening right now but also understand that, very soon, the ageing professional will no longer be able to be ignored, as they will form a large basis of the workforce.
I think that it is only right to look at this from two perspectives: that of the individual professional and of the employer. Both perspectives require huge changes in mindsets and demand a completely open-minded approach to everything.
From the perspective of the ELT professional, and I will use myself as an example, I believe that I could start to take the following into account:
- Broaden my own understanding of the different skills and knowledge sets which each generational group has and actively participate in learning opportunities between the different age groups. As a more experienced professional, I need to be aware that going to a conference and watching a first-time speaker can indeed add to my own development, as I will be able to see things from a completely new perspective.
- Adopt a far more pro-active attitude towards continuous professional development, being willing to move beyond my customary CPD choices and explore new fields of knowledge. If I have always chosen to be part of a particular SIG in an association, why not join a completely different SIG and broaden my own outlook, allowing myself to assume the role of a novice once again.
- Continue being an active member of communities of knowledge and associations, such as ELT associations. These allow for a number of networking opportunities, not to mention being able to keep abreast of the changes taking place in the field.
- Invite a millennial to work alongside myself on a classroom-based inquiry or a research question, which will enable us to engage in exploratory practice from multiple perspectives and improve our collaboration skills. Reflect on the process and learn from the challenges we experience.
- Understand that leadership is not directly associated with hierarchical company structure.
- Ensure my curriculum and professional skills are up to date, so that I am ready at any time to face new opportunities and challenges. Understand that change and growth will continue to be an important aspect of my professional career.
From the perspective of the employer, I would hope that the following could be taken into account:
- Foster a school/company culture in which an ethical and respectful environment is created, allowing for the different generations to work collaboratively alongside each other. This would mean encouraging peer mentoring between professionals of different generations.
- Adopt a positive hiring policy: this might mean minimising bias in the hiring process and implementing a recruitment processes with a clear statement of equal opportunity for all age groups.
- Encourage a learning environment in which the concept of apprenticeship / mentoring would allow for an exchange of skills and knowledge between the different professionals. It would also need to allow for specific training for older professionals who feel they need to brush up skills related to the use of new technology.
- Encourage the development of shared projects between different generations which allow for innovative pedagogical practices to be implemented and experimented with, within a safe, collaborative learning space for all professionals.
- Foster a positive critical thinking environment in the school/company culture, so that all generations can express their points of views and collaborate equally, thereby avoiding the risk of groupthink.
- Allow for flexible working hours or even part-time hours so that older professionals, even those who may have technically retired but still wish to work, can contribute with their know-how and experience.
We cannot hold back the changes that we as individuals and as members of society will have to face as we become older. However, we need to begin to see ageing in professional environments as a positive and necessary process. Our layered lives and professional experience count for a great deal, and we as a group of ELT professionals need to talk about this and ensure it is seen and understood and valued.
Byatt, A.S. (1996) The Matisse Stories, New York: Vintage Books
Centre for Ageing Better (2018) Becoming an age-friendly employer, Available from: www.ageing-better.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-09/Becoming-age-friendly-employer.pdf
Flatt T. (2012). A new definition of aging?. Frontiers in genetics, 3, 148. doi:10.3389/fgene.2012.00148
Gayford, M. (2011) A bigger message: conversations with David Hockney, London: Thames & Hudson
Gilbert SF. (2000) Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates. Aging: The Biology of Senescence. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10041/
Kwak, S., Kim, H., Chey, J., & Youm, Y. (2018). Feeling How Old I Am: Subjective Age Is Associated With Estimated Brain Age. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 10, 168. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2018.00168
Knowledge@Wharton (2018, April 17) Can Baby Boomers Succeed in a Millennial World?. Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-baby-boomers-survive-rise-millennials/
United Nations (2002) Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, Available from: https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/ageing/MIPAA/political-declaration-en.pdf
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP/248
World Health Organization (2018, February 5) Ageing and Health Fact Sheet, Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageing-and-health
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