How internal mobility can address “the last accepted discrimination in the workplace”

Reed Talent Solutions has been examining the issues, misconceptions, and opportunities around the ageing workforce.

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One expert, Tim Whitaker, a consultant working on age and employment issues and Trustee at Wise Age - a specialist employment charity for the over 50s working with employers, policy makers and older workers, summed up the importance of the subject when he said age is “probably the last accepted discrimination in the workplace”.

Tim was one of four experts who took part in our recent webinar, ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’.

He appeared alongside:

To help inform our analysis of the subject we also conducted two surveys, one of 500 senior HR managers from organisations with 1000 employees or more, and a separate survey of 1000 employees over 40 years of age.

Our findings address vital questions around the make-up of the ageing workforce, the discrimination older workers face, and how internal mobility provides solutions for both companies and employees.

What constitutes the ageing workforce?

The ageing workforce is the section of working people who have reached a certain age and beyond – but can an accurate figure be put on it?

Many businesses take over 40 as the start of the ageing workforce, a definition which seems to have travelled over from the United States, where The Age Discrimination in Employment Act 1967 states the ageing workforce is anyone aged 40 or older.

However, this figure is not set in stone and both the research carried out by Reed Talent Solutions and the experts we spoke to suggested firstly that it is impossible to put a number on who is an older worker, and that even if that were the case, it would probably be higher than 40.

Our survey of 1,000 employees over 40 years of age found 41% of those questioned categorised the ageing workforce as being ‘over 60’.

It is also notable that the older those being surveyed were, the older they believed the age representative of the ageing workforce is:

  • Over 40: 8%
  • Over 45: 7%
  • Over 50: 19%
  • Over 55: 24%
  • Over 60: 41%

Our second survey - of UK hiring managers at organisations with more than 1,000 employees - presented a slightly different, and younger, picture of what constitutes the ageing workforce.

17% of these respondents saw the ageing workforce as being ‘over 40,’ with the ‘over 60’ figure being 22%.

Gemma Carter- Morris, said there is no right answer.

“There are lots of different views,” she said on our webinar. “Lots of different perceptions in different sectors and industries.

Similarly, Martin Mason said organisations he works with generally classified the ageing workforce as being “beyond 60”.

“I don't think there is a right or wrong answer, he added, “but I can understand why - in 10-year increments beyond 40 - organisations start to look at the age profile of their workforce to help with contingency planning, succession planning, talent, etc.”

Perceptions of the ageing workforce: the benefits of experience and the inflexibility of age

Our surveys showed both employees and hiring managers said experience was the main benefit of employing older workers.

But they also identified a perceived inflexibility with older workers.

Of those employees surveyed, 62% identified experience as the biggest benefit - the next highest being knowledge of the business at 13%.

When it came to how employees felt their companies saw the ageing workforce, a third of those 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 physical mobility was cited by 12% of people.

The same perceptions existed among the hiring managers surveyed, with 45% of them saying the biggest benefit of ageing workers is experience.

Declan Slattery said: “When we look at people who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, etc and then you think back over the last 20, 30, 40 years, that’s a generation that has gone through incredible social, economic change and incredible exposure to technology.

“I'm not a great believer in this myth that older workers can’t use technology because most people will have had a home computer for 25 or 30 years, which they would have got when they were 30. By now they're 60.

“A lot of this conversation is about dispelling myths and legends.”

Age discrimination: Overlooked for promotion and asked to retire

Reed Talent Solutions’ survey of employees showed almost one-in-five (17%) of those surveyed said they have experienced age discrimination.

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, common answers included being overlooked for promotion, repeatedly asked when they would retire, having historical knowledge dismissed and being the victim of misplaced office ‘banter’.

Martin Mason said older workers suffer from bias around their ability to complete tasks, notably when it comes to manual labour or technology.

“We’ve also found there is a perception around a fixed versus growth mindset,” he said.

“There is unfortunately a perception that people that are older will have more of a fixed mindset than a growth mindset – but from a data point of view, we've been able to disprove all those things.”

Mr Whitaker went further, saying age is probably the last accepted discrimination in the workplace – despite being a protected characteristic under workplace law.

“A lot of older workers are being pushed out of jobs because they don't see the tone of what's being conveyed about a role as being suited to them,” he said.

“Organisations are good at talking about this, but less happens in terms of actual action.”

How can businesses attract and retain older workers?

We live in a time when the ageing workforce is reducing, with older workers leaving the workforce or retiring in increasing numbers.

Exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, this phenomenon has resulted in large numbers of talented older people being lost to the workforce at a time when there is a surplus of jobs.

The Centre for Ageing’s annual State of Ageing Report 2022 said even though the state pension age has risen to 66, employment rates among people approaching retirement age have fallen to their lowest levels since 2016.

One way of solving this problem 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 reducing working hours or 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.

Despite this, Reed Talent Solutions’ survey of hiring managers suggested there is plenty of work to do around internal mobility, with almost three-quarters of managers (73%) indicating they are not sure what the term meant when applied to the ageing workforce.

Of the employees surveyed, 63% said the most attractive policy that could be aimed at the ageing workforce would be the chance for them to reduce their hours.

However, it also suggested while some older workers are perhaps looking to reduce the intensity of their role, plenty are still looking to develop.

This is borne out by 41% of those surveyed saying learning and development opportunities would top their wish list for attractive policies targeting older workers.

When it came to the reality of what companies offer employees, those surveyed said less than half of the businesses they work for offer the following benefits:

  • Learning & development: 46%
  • The chance to reduce your hours: 45%
  • Opportunity to move to a position of greater responsibility: 27%
  • Opportunity to move to a position of less responsibility: 27%
  • The chance to take a sabbatical: 20%

Half (49%) of people said their company offers opportunities for older workers to upskill, with almost half of those surveyed saying their company has health and wellbeing policies in place specifically aimed at older workers.

Martin Mason said organisations must be more flexible and that the Covid-19 pandemic had demonstrated what is possible.

“The conventional norms around the way we employ people, particularly around full-time work and the typical business hours are changing,” he said.

“A more flexible approach will appeal to older workers, which means businesses can start to attract those skill sets they really need.”

He added giving older workers a sense of purpose and value would also aid retention, siting internal mobility policies such as talent marketplaces, understanding workforces via data, and signposting people to opportunities or projects.

Tim Whitaker said many people who have left the labour market would be “enticed back by greater flexible working”.

But he added while many organisations have looked at how they design jobs and create roles for people to match their experiences and aspirations, the idea remains “better in theory than in practice”.

“What's important is you have an organisational culture that allows that, so people don't feel that they're doing a role which isn't important or that they feel that they're being marginalised,” he said.

Next Consulting’s Gemma Carter-Morris said companies need to be able to understand what people want at different stages of their life.

“They might still want to climb the career ladder, or they might want less responsibility,” she said.

“It’s about not making people feel as though moving sideways is a backwards step or failure.

“People can take steps sidewards or down, and they're still going to add value. They still want to do a good job. They still want to be recognised for what they do. They still want to be developed and to grow.”

Listen to our webinar, ‘Internal mobility and the ageing workforce’ to hear more from our experts or download our whitepaper on the subject here.

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