Tomás Olivieri envisions a society that values the contributions of the 45 and older generation to the country’s growth and development. Tomás’ organization helps such individuals recover from a momentous personal turning point, the loss of their job, and prepares businesses and the larger society to employ and appreciate these workers.
La idea nueva
In Argentina, unemployed people over the age of 45 face innumerable hardships in finding gainful and productive employment. Stigmatized as too expensive and unproductive, after that age these hardworking individuals are sadly let go from their longstanding employers, and they struggle to get on their feet again. Tomás seeks nothing less than a paradigm shift in how society treats and values the work of the 45 and older generation. With his organization, Diagonal, Tomás closely accompanies people to find meaning in their lives again as they recover from a tremendous blow to their welfare and well-being. His trained coaches build their confidence and prepare them for a new career and a new phase of their lives. Participants graduate from the program confident and determined to begin the next phase of their productive career, with 57 percent becoming gainfully employed within six months. Many become independent entrepreneurs in their own right, thus showing a complete turnaround in their life to becoming productive and cutting-edge leaders in their society.
Tomás is constructing a new fabric that values and celebrates the contributions of workers 45 years and older through two distinct angles. Besides working carefully with individuals through an intense, effective two-month program carried out mainly by trained volunteers, Diagonal supports the private sector, universities, and the larger society. Businesses learn how to realign their policies, practices, and culture so that they can better utilize their most experienced employees, who have learned irreplaceable lessons after having lived through many of Argentina’s crises. Through initiatives with universities, public policy changes, and a major new prize that recognizes and celebrates outstanding contributions by those 45 and older, Diagonal hopes to raise the visibility of this problem and reshape society into one that values, not shuns, older professionals. With an already high success rate of reinserting 45+ individuals into the labor force and a replicable model that relies on volunteer professionals and partners with businesses, governments, and unemployed workers, Tomás is beginning to grow his organization to reach other areas of Argentina and engender a national shift in attitudes and behaviors.
After the 2001 crisis decimated the Argentine economy, the unemployment rate soared to almost a quarter of the working population. Yet as the economy started to recover, a segment of the population still could not find decent and permanent jobs—those about 45 years and older. By 2008 according to government estimates, the unemployment rate in Argentina was about 8.4 percent, or about 1.3 million people without work. Of that, over 500,000 people were 45 or older, and more recent calculations estimate the number has swelled to 600,000. The majority of these citizens come from the middle-classes with professional or vocational backgrounds who lived most of their careers without any help from the state.
This curious situation reveals an underlying social dynamic: the society overall does not value the labor contributions of older adults in comparison to those of younger people. Many blame the economic crisis, which did wreak havoc on employment across demographics, but the fact that older Argentines could not keep up in the labor market as the economy recovers suggests a bias among employers. Human resources investigations have shown that 90 percent of want ads request applicants younger than 45 and that the average age of working professionals in Argentina is 37. The 45+ generation was initially seen as too costly because of their salary and retirement benefits, then were seen as not productive enough and now are simply are not recognized as providing the talent needed to fulfill the tasks required in today’s jobs. According to the employment-consulting firm Manpower, only 11 percent of employers in Argentina have instituted policies and strategies to accept employees above 50 years of age. In an attempt to address this growing issue in the labor market, the Buenos Aires municipal government in 2007 announced a subsidy to small- and medium-sized businesses that hire older citizens. This incentive though has largely been unsuccessful because the subsidy was not large enough to offset the perceived costs of more elderly workers.
With life expectancies growing longer every year, the length of one’s possible career is also steadily increasing, but social norms have not progressed in kind. The culture values eternal youth and immediate gains over age and experience, a phenomenon that trickles down into the workforce. The 45 and over class of the population is a hidden subset in the labor market; they are still experienced and completely productive people who can and want to contribute to society before they retire, perhaps some twenty years later. Yet in this day and age, they are frequently grouped with those of the retirement age and dismissed as “dinosaurs” who are too old to offer a fresh perspective to a particular occupation. Being productive members of the work force gives positive meaning to life, so unemployed 45 and older citizens frequently suffer from low self-image, depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems associated with their perception that they can provide little worth to their community.
Having identified this significant yet invisible problem of adult unemployment, Tomás set out to transform and redefine the sense of meaning and utility for those people 45 years and older. With his team of four staff members and a network of 60 volunteer coaches per year, Tomás holds careful and intense interventions with unemployed adults. From this point of departure, Diagonal is shifting the social norms in how society receives and appreciates the opportunities offered by the older, yet still productive generation of Argentines.
Unemployed adults with 45 years of age or more arrive at Diagonal often quite emotionally frustrated or distraught but always with the conviction to overcome their circumstances and re-launch their professional careers. After initial screening, the adults take part in weekly exercises that comprise the Labor Force Reinsertion Program, a deep and dynamic series of sessions with the coaches, who are trained psychologists or human resources specialists. The sessions are normally held in small groups, giving the participants a chance to interact with others in a similar situation, and end with concrete tasks for them to complete before the next session. Beyond just technical training and preparation for the job market, the coaches introduce topics of self-worth and personal meaning. They seek to turn the participants into active agents who will define their own destiny. This change is almost akin to a rebirth of the person after having suffered a catastrophic event—the loss of job and its related sense of purpose.
Once completing the reinsertion program, with the aid of Diagonal adults begin their active job search. Diagonal links employers and job search engines and companies like Manpower, Santander Rio, and Zona Jobs with its alumni; businesses have come to recognize that Diagonal participants are well-prepared and capable employees. As of today, the organization has worked with about 3,000 people and has successfully helped a total of 57 percent regain employment within six months of completing the program. The alumni also form part of a close network for Diagonal to nurture as its subsequent classes pass through the program and for independent human resources agencies to access. Most notably, 45 percent of alumni end up launching their own ventures or businesses. Such incredible evidence of entrepreneurship can be accredited in part to the emphasis on active personal growth and empowerment in the coaching sessions which lead the participants to rediscover their capabilities, regain their self-image, and have the confidence to start their own business with great success rates.
At the same time, Diagonal dedicates major attention to businesses and the greater public to raise the visibility of the 45 and older unemployment population and prepare them to engage such people. Tomás and his team hold human resources workshops with businesses that are interested in accepting new but more experienced employees. The norm is frequently such that businesses shy away from hiring older workers due to the perception that they demand higher salaries and compensation packages. In these “intergenerational workshops,” Tomás addresses this false perception and trains employers to adopt new techniques that benefit older workers while also serving to capitalize on the expertise and long-term commitment of the employee. At the same time, the workshop also teaches how best to employ younger workers, especially in the area of technology. Over the long-term, the businesses end up reducing their expenses by hiring older workers. After this intervention, Diagonal connects the businesses with its network of 45 and older alumni. The participants are so well prepared for reinsertion into the labor market and the businesses to accept them that Diagonal only has to initiate the contact.
Diagonal has also recently launched a new online platform called We Are Still Valuable, an interactive portal to exchange suggestions, information, and best practices related to the job search for 45 and over people. Businesses, family members, and friends of the unemployed individuals can also log in to share resources and support the individuals, helping to make the transition faster and less painful. We Still Serve is one of Diagonal’s key tools to spreading the organization’s message to a larger, more popular audience. An alliance with the online career portal Job Zones also helps accelerate the spread of this platform.
Another way that Tomás seeks to change cultural norms is through his work with universities and public policy incidence. At the university level he and his team conduct seminars and presentations on more responsible human resources management and instituting intergenerational practices in the wider field of personnel administration. In 2010 Tomás helped organize Human Camp, a summit that convened numerous experts in human capital development to promote expertise and articulate a new paradigm for employees. In terms of public policy, with the non-governmental Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC) and the job portal Manpower, Diagonal is promoting a diagnosis and recommendations to create simple and effective labor policies that favor the 45 and older generation of Argentine workers in vulnerable situations. This he hopes to bring to the municipal and provincial governments around the region. Already ten of the fourteen comunas, or sub-municipal districts, in Buenos Aires have adopted some of Diagonal’s programs and initiatives. All of these tactics function in concert to foment attitudinal shift and position Diagonal as a reference.
For their work, Tomás and Diagonal have received various recognitions, including the honor of “Model of Best Cultural Practice” from the agency for Cultural Administration of the City of Buenos Aires. Now, Tomás is crafting a prize that will honor those businesses who employ and retain workers 45 years and older and has obtained major sponsorship from a prestigious business group. This prize will highlight leading companies and best practices with significant media attention and high profile recognition. The index features prominently in Tomás’ plans to scale his work around Argentina. He plans to form alliances with other businesses and funders that will enable Diagonal to implement its strategies with unemployed people and with businesses especially in the interior of the country. The national Macro Bank recently announced an important investment to have Diagonal replicate its program to major bank facilities throughout Argentina, one of the many types of business relationships he is starting to leverage. Beyond just serving as more sustainable financing, these partnerships will encourage further implementation of the business arm of his program and allow him to replicate his success in reinserting unemployed 45 and up individuals in the labor market.
Growing up, Tomás thought he had his life all planned out. Yet as he reached university, he struggled to find the major and career that best suited him, and he switched careers a number of times, and more than once he took a leave of absence as he tried to figure out his life path. Tomás ended up in the private sector in the area of marketing, but he felt deeply dissatisfied in this career choice, and he quit at age 27. Tomás describes that he found himself relating to those people much older than him who were also in periods of significant transition and would never be content with their lives again. This launched him into spiritual journey to find his true calling. Deciding that he felt most fulfilled when he worked to serve others, he started to volunteer in a number of different social sector organizations.
Tomás’ spiritual quest took him to India, where he collaborated with chronically ill patients in hospice care, an experience that marked him strongly, and to this day he volunteers in palliative care facilities. In 2000, with some colleagues he organized Diagonal, a citizen organization that at the time was intended to support adults who lived on the streets to write and craft a newsletter that they would sell to passersby. Tomás obtained sponsorships from large multinational corporations, such as McDonalds, to sustain the operations along with the revenue generated from sales on the street. Diagonal Magazine garnered many accolades around the world. Unlike many of the other newsletters that employ homeless people, the organization emphasized attention to the psychological well-being and personal development of its writers, rather than focusing on content alone.
When the economic crisis hit, many middle-class unemployed workers and professionals swelled the ranks of Diagonal participants. Tomás realized that this group of people had very different needs and backgrounds, and he started to focus on workers who were 45 years and older. Tomás came to see that these people were the hidden and forgotten unemployed—frequently well-trained, experienced and upstanding members of society but who had been stricken by the crisis and now could not continue their life’s work; no longer valued and appreciated by society. Tomás empathized with this feeling of personal loss and quest for rediscovery, and he began recruiting volunteers among the psychologists and Human Resources professionals working with the Diagonal methodology. In 2007, he decided to attack this invisible issue unattended by other social organizations in Buenos Aires and transformed Diagonal into what it is today, helping unemployed workers in their later yet productive years find personal meaning and a new career. Now Tomás is gradually creating a new paradigm in which society celebrates and values the wisdom of its most experienced employees.