Opinion: Fear of age blinds UK plc to opportunity

The grey market is big - and getting bigger - but the corporate environment of UK plc seems to be in denial about it. Indeed, the UK's Peter Pan business leaders are likely to be throwing their toys out of their prams again this week, after it was confirmed that the Government plans to abolish compulsory retirement ages. I can imagine now the most youth-conscious managers recoiling in horror at the concept of over-65s in the workplace, no doubt envisaging corridors clogged with Zimmer frames.

Britain's corporate obsession with youth is remarkable. But even the most youthful and dynamic leaders will one day recall wistfully the days when they still had their own teeth, and were still taken seriously by anyone under the age of 35. Perhaps they might even ponder on their own short-sightedness as they face a future pruning the rhododendrons.

This obsession with youth permeates every area of corporate life, from employee relations to almost any aspect of brand positioning - including even CSR. While companies all over the UK are apparently falling over themselves to create links with charities involving children or animals, old age apparently just isn't sexy enough.

At last week's PRWeek Forum, representatives of both Help the Aged and Age Concern, the UK's leading charities dealing with the elderly, bemoaned the way in which UK corporations veer away from an association with age, despite the fact that the grey market in the UK is ever-burgeoning and lucrative.

There are some exceptions. Help the Aged has a longstanding link with British Gas and Age Concern has also tied up with Powergen, Microsoft, Cable & Wireless and, most recently, Tesco.

It is probably a perception of neediness inherent in the brand names of Help the Aged and Age Concern that acts as the biggest barrier to greater corporate involvement.

Admittedly, projects such as Powergen's programme with Age Concern to test electric blankets aren't particularly sexy, but companies shouldn't let personal squeamishness about old age blind them to the fact that a wide range of sectors, for example financial services and IT, can benefit from government drives on areas such as encouraging saving for retirement and breaking down the digital divide. Never mind the fact that there is money to be made.

It seems that board directors need to be able to rationalise away their personal fear of aging before they can see the opportunities in the grey market.

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