Tim Whitaker is a consultant working on age and employment issues and a Trustee of Wise Age - a specialist employment charity for the over 50s working with employers, policy makers and older workers.
He was a guest on Reed Talent Solutions’ free webinar on ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’.
We spoke to Tim about why it is dangerous to define the ageing workforce, ageism in the workforce and how flexible working can benefit both older workers and the companies which employ them.
Defining the ageing workforce
Tim said companies have to be very careful about putting an actual figure on what constitutes the ageing workforce.
“For example, in the IT industry, people start to have feelings about their age when they’re in their 40s,” he said.
“In China, I read about a company which made people redundant in their late 20s in the IT sector because they were perceived as being too old.
“Typically, you tend to use the notion of over 50s, but that conceals quite a lot of differences.”
He then said there are “subtle differences” between 50- and 60-year-olds, and those over 60.
“We need to know a lot more about older workers than we currently do. There are a lot of assumptions, a lot of clichés and I would argue how an organisation treats age, and how it thinks about age, is actually hugely significant.”
Ageism – a ‘raw deal’ for older workers
Tim said there is clear evidence that age lags behind other protected characteristics in terms of organisational attention.
“Age friendly employment needs to be more than a slogan or grand HR policy,” he said.
“Many employers are just not thinking sufficiently about an ageing workforce and workforce planning.
“Worryingly older workers may be getting a raw deal from some employers.
“Research [from Aviva] shows one in three older workers experience ageism at work and two-thirds of over 55s feel the job market is closed to them – yet a quarter are very willing to work into their 80s.
“But crucially a quarter of over 55s felt forced to retire before they really wanted to [research from Workplace Insight].
“But the starkest finding is about ageism in HR – only 24 per cent of HR leaders aged 25-30 were ‘very’ willing or motivated to recruit workers aged 55–75, in contrast to nearly two-thirds of older HR leaders aged 46-50.”
Tim also cited a lack of leadership training and development as reasons why older workers are losing motivation.
“What’s often neglected is a clear view of the needs and wishes of older workers in contrast with the attention given to Generation Z,” he added.
“Many assumptions abound which fall into a ‘decline narrative’ facing older workers – the lack of innovation, lack of skills, and health and caring responsibilities.
“Coupled with an intergenerational argument for the need to refresh the workforce, end job blocking, cut costs and ‘leave it to younger workers’ this frames how older workers are viewed.
“The risk is that older workers can internalise these assumptions hence limiting their choice.”
How flexible working and training can benefit the ageing workforce
Tim also said some organisations are thinking about age and tackling the need for a strategic approach to older workers.
“This is based on not just a moral argument but also the economic benefits,” he said.
“But it requires an approach to age being embedded across the organisation, from senior leadership to line managers, and crucially employee engagement around age.
“How an organisation talks about age affects how older workers feel about their status and position and their future.
“Reviewing how age is treated from recruitment to flexible working is key.”
He added flexible working – such as being able to work compressed hours or reduce their number of days - is one of the most popular solutions among older workers.
“It covers a multitude of things and works where jobs can be defined in terms of that flexibility.” he said.
“The big problem is if you're a manager and an older worker comes along and says I'd like to reduce my hours, you are immediately thinking, ‘what am I going do with the workload?’.
“You don’t think about it in terms of, ‘I’m going to get that commitment and that expertise and knowledge’.”
He said businesses need to think about how they can create roles or use schemes that allow older workers to return on a consultancy basis.
Tim also highlighted the need for training and upskilling, pointing to a City & Guilds survey which showed 30% of over 55s said they had not received any training in the last five years.
“Ultimately it comes down to whether an organisation has a framework for thinking about how it is going to deal with an older workforce,” he said.
“Has it got the protocols and policies and managers understanding the issues? A lot of organisations haven’t really addressed age yet.”