Current affairs

The new wasteland. A tale of frustration from a pensioner who gave up looking for work.

20 Sep 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips


When you stop banging your head against the wall your head is likely to stop hurting. I stopped my head hurting by giving up looking for jobs that I wanted to do, and was well qualified for, a couple of years ago. 

Let me be clear: I’m one of the lucky 65+ year olds who don’t have to work. Many do, especially in the current economic climate. They have no choice because inflation has devalued their pensions – state or private or both – and the ever-rising bills still have to be paid. 

There are those who are financially secure and content enough not to work. Good luck to them. They’ve doubtless worked hard to be in that position. But I bet there’s a whole bunch of people who still wouldn’t mind staying on the employment merry-go-round before it – and they – run out of puff.

I am – or more accurately was – one of those. I have been a journalist for all my meaningful working life. I’ve climbed to the top of a few tall trees and I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot of the world, sharing the skills I have learned. 

I set up my own consultancy and training business after leaving the BBC and, for a few years, worked in many different countries, including Nigeria, the Kurdistan region of North Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. But those places became more dangerous to work in than I cared for. Also, continual travel becomes tedious after a while. I know how that last bit sounds, but it’s true.

I didn’t want to stop work because I’m one of those people who are always looking for something to do. That might explain why, in recent years, I have run a barbecue catering company, worked as an apprentice tree surgeon and helped out with a Covid-19 mobile testing team. One of my sons once remarked that going on holiday with Dad is like going on holiday with a wasp. It’s a fair point.

I decided I’d like to use my skills closer to home and preferably in the charity sector. I’m not going to name real names in the following story. It’s presented as an example of what happened to me and I suspect quite a few of you too, dear readers.

I came across a job helping to run a press office for a national charity. It would be based not far from my home and my father had been diagnosed with the condition the charity is concerned with. I called the contact for the job and discovered that we knew each other. I had trained him at the BBC. Let’s call him ‘Steve.’

“Do you really want to do this?” he asked.

I explained that I really did and why. 

“Well that’s great,” he said, “but obviously we need to go through the proper process first so, if you wouldn’t mind, please fill in the various forms and I’ll be in touch.”

I was invited for an interview a couple of weeks later. This was actually going to be the first ‘proper’ interview I’d had for the best part of 40 years. I’d moved into different jobs in the past mainly after a chat over dinner or a pint. It was just the nature of the industry I worked in.

There were two people on the interview board; ‘Steve’ and his boss. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and they both had my application forms and CV in front of them. 

Then the questions started. Of course, they were going to be the same questions they asked every candidate but I did begin to wonder if they had read my CV.

Example: “If one of our managers had to do a radio interview, would you know how to brief them?”

I explained that I had trained presenters and business leaders in the skills needed to engage a radio audience for many years and in many different countries. I outlined what those skills were and went on to describe how those skills differ from appearing on TV.

Before the interview I had carried out a bit of research on the charity and discovered that it spent a lot of money using outside companies to train its managers in media skills. It wasn’t difficult to find that out. I knew the company that did that work. 

So I pointed out that if they recruited me the media skills training could be carried out in-house, which would obviously save the charity money and would be available on demand.

I was next asked if I knew how to create a press release. I referred the interviewers to my CV which included a passage about the week-long training course I had designed and delivered to countless organisations on the very skills need to get a message across in a press release. I summarised those skills for them and we moved on.

“Could you give us an example of when you have led a team and what challenges you faced?”

There was little point mentioning the CV again so I explained how I was the output editor for the BBC News Channel when 9/11 happened. Not only did I have to make tough decisions about what was broadcast, I had to be acutely aware of the emotional impact on my team at the time and manage that accordingly. 

Now it was my turn to ask some questions. I used the time to try to explain why I wanted the job, what I would bring to it – I handed over a short document with ideas for creating positive coverage for the charity – and I made it crystal clear that I wasn’t in the least bit interested in any form of management or senior role. I wanted to share my experiences for a great cause and, of course, give myself a new challenge.

I thought that was it but then I was asked if I could show the interviewers that I could write a press release by going off into a side room and producing one from the information they provided.

I may have wondered at this stage whether they had listened to a word I had said, but it was fair enough. The interview had to be a level playing field for all the candidates. I produced the work, which included details about the charity that I wasn’t given but had brought with me, and handed it in.

I was thanked for my time and told they would be in touch. The very next morning I received a telephone call from ‘Steve.’

“Thanks for coming Paul. We were really impressed with your experience. But, unfortunately, on this occasion you have been unsuccessful. Would you like some feedback?”

“Err. Yes. That would be nice.”

He explained that it would have been good if I could have provided an example of a press release that had appeared in a publication without any editing. He mentioned my story about the coverage of 9/11 and pointed out that it would have been helpful if I had told him about any awards I had been given for the coverage.

I interrupted with a rather blunt ‘WHAT??????’ and asked ‘Steve’ what on earth was going on.

After a short pause he said: ‘Paul, I’ll be honest with you. My boss was terrified of you. She said you would have her job in three weeks.’ I clearly hadn’t been convincing enough that I wasn’t vaguely interested in managing again. 

Some of you may be thinking that my protestations and frustration sound arrogant. I have no divine right to be employed by anyone, after all. But why would an organisation, especially a charity, turn down having someone with my experience on board? I know from former colleagues that this story is by no means unique. None of us would have our ‘lived experience’ (I hate that phrase) without being the age that we are. 

This article is not intended to be a whinge or a moan or another example of ‘old man shouts at cloud.’ It is designed to highlight the amount of ability that is going to waste. I firmly believe that it’s a resource that must be tapped into. You may think otherwise.

Have you had the misfortune of experiencing professional ageism? Let us know in the comments below.

Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.

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