Get used to the 50+ intern in the age of no retirement

De Niro's new film The Intern may be closer to reality than we might like to think

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The Independent Online

“I just know there’s a hole in my life and I need to fill it,” says Robert de Niro’s character, Ben Whittaker, in the new Nancy Meyers film, The Intern, which opened this weekend.

De Niro is telling Anne Hathaway’s young internet entrepreneur character Jules Ostin why he wants a job at her online fashion business despite being in his 70s. It is amiable, frothy fiction, but behind Meyer’s typically bittersweet humour is a new reality: for many, we are in the Age Of No Retirement.

We’ve all seen portentous figures revealing how few of us have made adequate pensions provision to live even at minimum wage level in retirement. And that’s even before the full long-term repercussions of April’s pension reforms have been felt. 

What will happen when we have blown our retirement funds if not on a Lamborghini then a BMW 3-series convertible and luxury family holidays? The Government may be alone in thinking this will not happen – especially when interest rates on savings are so desultory. As a result tens of thousands of us will abandon plans for retirement as we used to think of it (pipe, slippers, Hastings) and instead look for renewed employment. 

It won’t be easy. Without even counting those beyond retirement age, more than 400,000 people aged 50+ are unemployed, more than any work age demographic. We all know why. In our cost-cutting business culture we are deemed as mere expensive “overhead”. It’s too easy for an accountant studying an Excel sheet to see merely a cost, not the value behind that number.

When I was a magazine editor I’d come under annual pressure to lay off our 50-something reporter. He was exceptionally good but never sought promotion for fear of being moved away from using the very skills that made him so outstanding. Each year I would argue (successfully) that to replace his knowledge would take at least two cheaper hires, whose combined salaries would actually be greater. 

Today, there are nascent moves to do something about that “400,000”.  A tiny minority is now on apprenticeship schemes. A very few companies, most notably Barclays, have woken up to the benefits of employing experience. 

At my own High50, which champions contemporary 50+, we have a mature intern, Rosanna, who had been out of her old world (books) dealing with children and widowhood for a decade before arriving at our offices insisting she had “no relevant skills or contacts”. Palpable nonsense. In under a year she became a vital member of our team.

Rosanna’s story is still rare – so much so that the Daily Mail featured her recently photographed, at its request, holding coffees we’ve never asked her to make. She’s far too busy editing videos she has filmed herself, interviewing entrepreneurs. 

That’s another trend: more people in their 50s are starting up businesses than any other age demographic. And guess what? More of us are succeeding, perhaps because those involved actually know our subjects. 

De Niro’s “The Intern” character is in his 70s. I’m not talking about retired septuagenarians here, worthy as that issue is. I’m talking about 50-65 year-old people who are at the zenith of what they have to offer to the workplace – as long as the workplace deigns to look in their direction.