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Saturday June 29th was a day to remember. That day I took my 15 year old daughter to a Rolling Stones concert. Actually she went along because Triggerfinger played at the same festival. But we stayed (of course) until the Stones played their last note. Both of us were in awe. And seeing how Mick Jagger moved on stage made me owner how he did that. How did he develop this level of employability?
At a certain moment Mick Jagger mentioned the death of Bobby Womack. Bobby Womack wrote songs for the Stones and they played one of his earlier songs in tribute. Casually Mick Jagger mentioned that this was a song they brought in 1964. My daughter looked up to me (I am taller than she is) and she startled: but that’s 50 years ago. And I thought: this is employability in practice.

50 years of career

How many people have a career of 50 years? Few. Most people in Europe retire long before that. People do not see the use of having long careers. Why is that? Because work is something that you need to keep as short as possible to be able to enjoy life. Retirement is seen as a sort of return on investment. You work hard to have a pension? Isn’t that bizarre?
What if we would change that accepted point of view into: you work (as hard as needed) because it is fun. Because it keeps you alive? Because it provides meaning? Why do the Stones perform at higher age? For the money? For the status? Frankly, I don’t care. But the fact is that they do. After 50 years they are on stage. And I can tell you that I haven’t seen many 70-year-old people do what they do. He was on stage like of he were 30 years younger. And that puzzles me. Because somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to remember to have read about this guy’s life. It wasn’t the healthiest of ways to lead a life. So how did he make his career sustainable?

Sustainable employability

In short, sustainable employability is the capacity to work tomorrow, or next week. Someone who is employable sustainably is able to create value for his employer or customer today and in the foreseeable future. There are three components in that: health, competence and engagement. Poor health makes it less likely to work on a longer term. Having obsolete competencies will not enable someone to work longer. And lacking drive to do something kills the longevity of your work ability. So working on those 3 is key to long-term, sustainable employability.
I don’t know if the Stones have worked deliberately on all  three of them. But what I do know is that have kept their engagement to perform over all those years. What I do know is that they still have the competencies to perform in a changed world. That their music has kept its vibrance and energy. And that there still is an audience for their music, even when that music is half a century old. This might be luck, but I don’t think it is.
A sustainability Environment
I did not mean to write sustainable environment. There are some environments that kill sustainable employability. These are environments that have following characteristics:

  • There is no way to acquire new skills.
  • The desired behaviour is defined by hierarchy.
  • There is no openness for new insights, new ideas, …
  • The personal goals are irrelevant.
  • There is no longer term perspective
  • Leadership is of the diminishing kind.
  • Personal development is not stimulated as the focus lies on process efficiency.
  • There is no room for decision-making. Actions are pre-programmed or subject to hierarchical approval.

And I could go on. The Stones have created for themselves an environment where they could thrive. Today they choose what they do. they can afford to do so. What would happen if you could afford to do so yourself? What choice do you have?

There is always something you can do

Sustainable employability is your own responsibility. There is no point in waiting for someone to nudge you forward. You have to do it on your own. And part of that is looking for people who can help you to develop. And before you say that you cannot do anything: yes there is something you can do. You can start to think. Let me ask some questions:

  1. How likely is it that you will be able to work in one company or industry? Not likely.
  2. How likely is it that what you’ve learnt at the start of your career, is still valid today? Not likely.
  3. How likely is is that the job you hold will exist in its current form 10 years from now? Not likely.
  4. How likely is it that you can build a career without changing profession? This is less and less likely.

So you need to do something yourself. And there is always something you can do.

  1. You can hope that you will reach your retirement age without trouble.
  2. You can run away and find something else to do.
  3. Or you can work on your employability whilst doing your job.

And whatever you decide to do, it’s your decision. The thing is that at least is a decision. And if you take it you’re active about it. I am sure the members of the Rolling Stones did not always take decision deliberately, or wisely. But that’s not so bad. Fact is that they are still on stage. And seeing them is not saddening. It’s rejoicing. The Rolling Stones are exemplary to people who will need to work longer. They are inspirational for companies that are faced with an ageing workforce.
They show that it is possible to deliver quality at a later age and that stereotypes of the ageing process need not be true.
So think about your personal employability. Look at the Stones and ask yourself: how can I do what they do?

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


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