Countering age discrimination against the ageing workforce

Older workers are a vital part of the workforce, offering experience and expertise built up over years of work.

But age discrimination is a major barrier to getting the most out of the ageing workforce.

Countering this is vital to the success of businesses and internal mobility is an important tool in doing so.

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Who and what is an older worker?

The ageing workforce is the section of working people who have reached a certain age and beyond – but what age this exactly represents is up for debate.

However, there is not a ‘written in stone’ rule which outlines at which point someone becomes an older worker.

Director of Wellbeing and Client Relationships at Next Steps Consulting Limited, Gemma Carter-Morris, said it is hard to put on a number on what constitutes the ageing workforce.

She said: “People have such different outcomes and experiences.

“One 40-year-old - or one 60-year-old - is very different to another. I wouldn’t like to put a number on it.”

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 said companies have to be very careful about putting an actual figure on what constitutes the ageing workforce.

“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,” he said.

Martin Mason, the CEO and Founder of talent inclusion and management business Unleashed, agreed that it is hard – and dangerous – to put a number on what constitutes the ageing workforce.

“We have four generations in the workforce now,” he said, with some people working longer due to increases in the retirement age or the higher cost of living.”

Perceptions of – and discrimination against – the ageing workforce

Reed Talent Solutions recently held a webinar on ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’ and has produced a whitepaper on the subject.

As part of our research, we conducted two surveys, one of 500 senior HR managers from organisations with 1,000 employees or more, and a separate survey of 1,000 employees over 40 years of age.

The Equality Act 2010 says age is a protected characteristic, but our survey of employees showed almost one-in-five (17%) of those surveyed said they have experienced age discrimination in the workplace.

This number increased to one-in-four (26%) for people aged 60-65, suggesting the older workers get, the more age discrimination they are subjected to.

Among answers given by employees regarding the type of discrimination they had experienced, the most common answer was that they had been overlooked for promotion.

Other answers included:

  • “A colleague constantly joking about old people in work / being called a dinosaur”
  • “A colleague using the facts that I’ve been in a leadership role for so long”
  • “Because I’m near 50 I get comments about the menopause”
  • “Being bossed about because of age and looks”
  • “Being considered stale as over 50 and having historical knowledge dismissed”
  • “General comments about how old fashioned my tastes are – music, food, drinks, etc”
  • “People calling me old timer”
  • “Repeatedly asked when I would retire”

When it came to how employees felt their companies saw the ageing workforce, a third of people we surveyed said they believed those in charge saw the biggest issue with older workers as inflexibility or an unwillingness to change or adapt.

29% suggested their company saw older workers as having out-of-date attitudes or skills, while a belief companies see older workers as having a lack of mobility was cited by 12% of people surveyed.

In terms of the biggest issues when managing internal mobility for an ageing workforce, our survey of hiring managers identified a mixed bag of reasons.

A lack of motivation (15%) was the most identified issue, while 14% of managers identified out-of-date attitudes or skills, 14% said the ability to keep up with technological advancements, 11% said succession issues, and a further 11% said inflexibility or an unwillingness to change/adapt.

Martin Mason, from Unleashed, said there are several assumptions and biases around older workers, including:

  • Their ability to do physical tasks
  • Their ability to utilise and operate tech
  • That they have fixed views
  • The cost of medical benefits for workers who will need more sickness leave, etc

He said older workers can actually bring “wisdom and a lived experience”.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good mentors across my career,” he said, “a few of them have been much older and they have been able to look at things in a different way.”

Director of Wellbeing and Client Relationships at Next Steps Consulting Limited, Gemma Carter-Morris, said providing the right training is really important.

“The sense I get is the older people get, the less opportunities come their way for development,” she said.

“Companies are focused on the younger generation, who are seen as the future of businesses.

“Part of our wellbeing is based on being able to continually develop. That development is really good for us.

“Organisations have a responsibility to ensure everyone has opportunities to learn, develop and grow.”

How can internal mobility counter age discrimination?

One way of addressing age discrimination is via internal mobility policies, such as the training and reskilling of new and existing workers, opportunities for people to explore new roles, and flexible working including the chance to reduce someone’s working hours or working days.

These policies have known benefits in terms of retention, career development, reductions in the time taken to hire new workers and increased engagement within the workforce.

Internal mobility practices can be used as part of a company's Employee Value Proposition (EVP) to make the overall policy stand out, and ultimately as a tool to attract older workers.

Tapping into new candidate talent pools, particularly in light of the current, well documented market challenges, will bring true commercial benefit.

If, therefore, a company’s internal mobility strategy is targeted at getting the best out of the ageing workforce by making sure the correct training is available and that opportunities are in place to move vertically and laterally across the business, then that organisation will be in a prime position to attract older workers, and the knowledge they hold.

Part of this is also down to organisations making sure that there is an authenticity to their internal mobility policies – that they ‘walk the walk’ rather than simply playing lip service to the idea.

It is no use talking about creating an inclusive environment for older workers and then falling into all the traps and biases that have caused discrimination or upset in the past – for example, by using language in job adverts such as ‘dynamic’ or by showcasing only benefits that appeal to certain demographic groups.

Ms Carter-Morris said businesses need to personalise their approach to wellbeing: “It is about everything that allows people to be their very best.

“At different points we have different drivers in our career. Some people are driving for more promotions and to climb the ladder.

“Others might have done that, and they want to take a step back, or there is something that has impacted their home life or personal life that has changed what they want or need from work.”

Mr Mason also highlighted the role of flexible working, as well as the need for solid data on the make-up of a company’s workforce.

“Tech has a huge role to play,” he said, citing its ability to allow businesses to not only understand their workers, thus helping them find suitable roles within the organisation, but also to spot issues at an early stage and be able to do something about them.

“In terms of flexibility, we are seeing a shift,” he said. “Rather than a one-size-fits-all solution, with some practices and benefits you need to meet people where they are at in different stages of their life.”

To find out more about this subject, download our free whitepaper ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’.

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