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How to combat ageism in the workplace

By Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays

As we lead longer and healthier lives, the reality for many of us is that we will need to, or indeed want to, work longer than previous generations. However, despite this, ageism in the workplace continues to hold people, and businesses back.

Ageism at work largely ignores the many positive attributes mature-age colleagues bring to the workforce. Knowledge, expertise, experience and loyalty are just some of these qualities that companies are missing out on, by continuing to hold bias against older applicants.

In this month’s update, I want to give advice to business leaders on tackling ageism in the workplace and explain why we must address the issue going forward.

How do I know this?

At Hays, we recently released a report under our Hays Helps programme. The programme has been established to focus and align all of Hays’ global volunteering and fund-raising activities towards the aim of ensuring we are supporting the communities and societies we serve. We do this by both lifting the employability of people who may not have the same opportunities as others, and protecting the environments where we are based, in order to create a more sustainable future world of work. The Hays Helps report, ‘Focusing on Employment Inequity: How We Can Help’, found: “Across 24 of Hays’ countries, the proportion of mature-aged unemployed people who had been out of work for at least a year in 2019 was 31.6% for 55 to 64-year-olds”. It concerns me that talented workers in this age bracket can be disregarded or forgotten about in such a way.

The Global Report on Ageism, developed by the World Health Organisation, surveyed 83,000 people from 57 countries, also found that one in every two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes, which has the potential to limit the available talent pool 

Why addressing ageism in the workplace is more important now than ever

The ageing demographic of our society has finally driven ageism firmly to the top of the agenda. The triumph of extending life expectancy into the hundredth year has not been aligned with a change in our understanding of the concept of retirement. If we are expected to live 30 years longer than our great-grandparents, many people will want or need to keep working beyond 65 years-old, realistically up to 75.  

From a corporate perspective the reality is also shocking as over the next 20 years, the working age population will shrink across all western economies by c.25%. Over the same period, the over 60 population will grow by 40%. Indeed, within just two years in the UK, one in two of our workforce will be aged 50+.

I have previously written about age in the workforce, and referenced the outstanding book, ‘The 100-Year Life’ by Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton. The book explores how our working lives will grow in line with our prolonged lifespans. To fully appreciate the gift of longer life, something has to change in our society to enable us to create multi-generational and sustainable workforces. However, the main obstacle many older individuals face in their career is the general acceptance of blatant ageism in the workplace.  It’s “Workplace Equality for All! (Unless They’re Old),” as described in fascinating research by NYU’s Michael North and Stanford’s Ashley Martin which found that workers who openly oppose racism and sexism were still prejudiced against older workers.

The Hays Helps report, ‘Focusing on Employment Inequity: How We Can Help’ shows that people over 55 are more likely to be unemployed for 12 months or more than their younger counterparts.

How can we find a new way forward with age?

55/Redefined, who is a lobbyist against ageism, commissioned a UK research study last year into Ageism at Work which found that:

• 68% of respondents feel the jobs market is closed to them at 55+

• 24% of respondents feel forced to retire before they want to

• 33% of respondents have lost interest in their job due to lack of development opportunities

Yet…

• 90% of employees in this age group believe they have transferable skills to move role and/or industry if the employer was prepared to offer technical training

BUT….

• Only 35% of employers are prepared to offer technical training and hire this age group into a new industry or role they have previously been working in

Age bias is demonstrated in widely held myths, such as over 50s are more likely to get ill (in reality, a worker in their 50s is 200% less likely to take a day off work sick than a worker in their 20s) or that they lack pace or are not “digital natives”. The predominance of these views highlights that we must educate our teams with facts and steer away from damaging cliches, which unfairly prejudice today’s 50-70 generation in the workplace.

How do you attract & retain over 50s talent?

The 50+ workforce is growing, and offers employers experience, enthusiasm and real loyalty to those who continue to invest in their career, particularly when they have experienced ageism elsewhere. So how can you access this talent pool?

• Opportunities in role – Many employees at this age are still highly ambitious and simply become bored or frustrated by the lack of challenge and limited leadership opportunities. Many employers assume ambition has declined with age which is another prejudiced belief unrelated to the facts. 66% of survey respondents would re-skill with their current employer and 34% said they were keen for different challenges in their existing role. By offering the same engagement in career development to older as well as younger employees, there is a clear opportunity to retain talent who just happen to be over 50.  

• Re-skill in a new area or industry – Talented and energetic over 50s are keen to try a new phase of their career, embark on something new or investigate a real passion or interest. With their experience and desire to learn, they view their career through a new lens which isn’t just about the money. In fact, 92% of this age group would take a pay cut to retrain into a new industry or role that were interested in. The Hays Helps programme is focusing on providing skills and training to people over 50 so that they can re-enter the workforce or apply their expertise in another field.

We have to be pragmatic about skills, particularly in the current climate. However, with increasing talent shortages and many businesses struggling to fill key roles, hiring by looking beyond experience and technical fit to soft skills, behaviour, motivation, and cultural fit, might be a welcome solution. Indeed, if we could move away from hiring on previous experience alone, we will truly open up this talent pool to join industries they haven’t previously worked in.

• Offer flexibility – With many older workers spanning 30 years in employment, they are now looking for a little flexibility to continue to work many more productive and profitable years, whilst allowing time to pursue other interests or support.  Offering work that fits flexibly into this new balanced approach will instantly open up hidden talent pools.

• Welcome them back – Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions in the U.K. show that more than 790,000 people aged 50 and 64 are actively seeking work or are inactive but would like to find work. In addition, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently released their Insight Report looking at attitudes and reasons why 650,000 people aged 50 to 70 years who left the labour market in 2021 are not actively seeking work. A key message stands out. “Four in 10 of 50+ workforce who left during the pandemic are now showing a willingness to return to work.” This is not lost on the U.K. government as they see the skills shortages that are apparent across so many sectors in the economy and are looking for ways to encourage premature retirees to participate back in the labour pool. I believe it is our collective role as employers to create new types of work to encourage this talent pool back into work and make them feel welcome.

• Acknowledge the need for Age Inclusion – Age is now one of the key topics of ED&I conversations which I find myself engaged with. After all, it’s the one aspect of diversity that every single one of us will be a part of at some stage in our life. I am convinced that forward thinking firms who tackle ageism will be able to capitalise on the value of older workers and will be the ultimate winners in the increasingly challenging race for talent. And many companies feel the same. 55/Redefined have seen an influx of businesses sign up to their Age Inclusive Charter and become certified as Age Inclusive Employers – these include Hargreaves Lansdown, Rank, Slater + Gordon and ITV.

The challenge we face with ageing populations is that we need to adapt from a youth-based employment culture. Above all, society’s perception of over 50s needs to catch up with reality. People are living longer and healthier lives – today, your 50s is only the mid-point of life and far away from retirement. It is an age to start a new career, re-train and still have decades of time to advance in that new path before even considering what we used to call retirement.

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.

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