AGE DISCRIMINATION IS A REFLECTION OF A PREVAILING ATTITUDE IN OUR SOCIETY – AND, THEREFORE, THE WORKPLACE. ALL TOO OFTEN, WE THINK OF OLDER PEOPLE AS A BURDEN. WE NEED TO TURN THIS AROUND AND VIEW THE FACT THAT WE ARE LIVING LONGER IN A MORE POSITIVE LIGHT.
With the introduction of age regulations later this year, the time has come to face up to the truth. We haven’t even started to fight the battle on age discrimination; on the contrary we continue to embrace it. Most people still believe that age is a very useful discriminator; in employment this translates into such instances as:
• A job advert recruiting a ‘dynamic/enthusiastic’ person to ‘fit in with a young, sociable team’
• Selecting someone in their 50s for redundancy ‘because they will be going soon anyway’
• Retiring a 60-year-old ‘to make way for ‘new blood’’
• Assuming a mentoring scheme is a one-way street, from an older employee to a younger.
Forthcoming legislation shouldn’t be the only reason employers start to take age discrimination seriously. Demographic change and the pension crisis have strengthened further an already compelling business case forage diversity. The UK’s relatively low unemployment rates and the skills shortages suffered by many employers, make ignoring any potential source of labour simply on the basis of age, a poor business decision. “more older people, but also fewer younger people” Indeed it is worth reminding ourselves that today nearly one in three of the UK’s workforce is over 40. And 50% of us now retire before the official ‘retirement’ age.
Even after working on this agenda for five years, it still staggers me the number of people who fail to recognise that an ageing population not only means more older people, but also fewer younger people. Soon, the problem for employers will not be about how to ‘let go’ of older employees, but rather, about how to retain them! The EFA have, of course, been heavily involved in promoting the business arguments for age diversity for many years – with some success. With increasing recognition of our changing demographics, the relatively low levels of unemployment and the changes in the way we work, we are, it seems, pushing at an open door.
However, we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty in making the business case work in reality. While, in a class room, itis easy to make people see ageism doesn’t make sense, it is still incredibly difficult to make people change the way they act once back at their desks – old habits die hard. And I’m not sure anyone has truly cracked it yet.
“we all have inbuilt assumptions”
Anyone in HR knows the business arguments for diversity, but taken out of context the business case can be misinterpreted and exacerbate a problem. Take, for example, the argument that an older person is better placed to sell to an older person (particularly where financial products are concerned). While this sounds reasonable, in reality it constitutes positive discrimination, which is probably something you would have spotted much sooner if I had said that a black person should only sell to a black person. This, in itself, demonstrates the ‘different’ way people view age.
If we are honest, we all have inbuilt assumptions that people of certain ages do certain jobs. We have a picture of the type of person we want to hire/promote/work with/are served by, and we often define their characteristics by age. Every day we make judgments on people which are consciously or unconsciously based on our preconceptions.
Employers alone cannot possibly bring about the changes we desire. This creates a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: who bears responsibility for our society and to what extent do employers ‘reflect’ or ‘determine’ our value system? We like our judges old(usually); we like our bar staff young; we like our doctors to be about 50 and we worry when a policeman is younger than us – or believe they should, at least, be older than our children. If this is what we expect, this is what employers deliver. “seeing beyond age...focusing on ability” In reality, not only do we stereotype people according to their age but we seek to homogenise different age groups. Yet a 60-year-old today is nothing like a 60-year-old was 30 years ago, and probably nothing like even the 60-year-old standing next to him/her.
Traditional stereotypes of older people as loyal, technophobic individuals cruising to retirement with great customer service skills, and young innovative, technically savvy, disloyal employees, neatly encapsulate what we are fighting. We need to get much better at seeing beyond ‘age’ and focusing on ability. So how do we effectively tackle ageist attitudes at work?
Perhaps we need to re-assess how we treat workers of all ages from their first day in employment. Discriminatory behaviours in the workforce today are the consequence of many years of ageist attitudes and practices which have affected all age groups. Why, for example, should a younger manager fear employing an older worker? Is it, possibly, because they have never witnessed a working relationship where age roles have been reversed? In order to challenge discrimination effectively we need to engender a much more egalitarian culture. This entails treating everyone equally – and as individuals rather than an age, gender or racial group. If we discriminate against young people, we establish a cycle of discrimination and will never effectively tackle discrimination against older people. As you would expect, EFA approaches everything from an ‘age’ perspective. And it is often quite difficult to establish where the boundaries should be; when is something no longer an age issue, but more about flexible working, or work/life balance, or performance management?
But in truth, looking at work through an age lens reveals all sorts of interesting issues about work and people’s attitude to it. Last year the EFA commissioned a major research project to better understand people’s experiences of work at different ages. The results were fascinating. We split the UK workforce into decades and, using extensive Labour Force Survey data and strict quotas for qualitative research, found some real ‘age busting’ facts:
• Teenage workers suffer age discrimination more than 50-year olds and are bored and unhappy at work
• 30-year olds are the unhappiest with their work/life balance (these are probably the people with the most pressure between work and family lives)
• Older people are the happiest in work (I hope the cynics amongst you don’t think that’s because they know the end –of having to work – is in sight!)
• In fact, many people want to keep working until into their late 60s/early 70s.
• The older you are, the more likely you are to want to keep working. This should dispel the myth that older people are merely ‘cruising’ towards retirement.
It starts to get really interesting when you look at issues and problem areas, such as the retention rates of different age groups within your workforce. Could a better appreciation of the issues different people face at different ages/life stages, enable you to better design your flexible work offering and employee benefit packages? “rethink how we work” With increased longevity and the pressure on pensions, we need to accept we will all have to work for longer.
This means that, first of all, we have to rethink how we work. To date, our working lives are structured around a very traditional model: education, followed by working for 40 years, then the reward of retirement – and if you work hard, and earn lots of money, you gain more reward by retiring earlier. Today, both education and retirement (retirement in particular) have been extended, while our working lives have ‘shrunk’.
And in a ‘traditional’ work setting you start by making the tea and end as MD. Maybe what we need is a whole new model. Perhaps it means not expecting to be promoted to the top of your profession by the time you are 32. Maybe it means you have more than one career. Maybe this means having a period of ‘retirement’ in your 30s and 40s – so you aren’t ‘exhausted’ and are more ready and willing to work for longer. But we shouldn’t get caught in the trap of assuming people of a specific age all have the same attitude towards work. Tackling age stereotyping continues to pose our greatest challenge.
When we interviewed a representative sample of over 1,600 people, we found it wasn’t age that determined attitude towards work, but more usually it was education, working environment, the type of job and sector and the size of organisation they worked for. Legislation isn’t a panacea. It hasn’t ended all racial or gender discrimination in the workplace, although there has been a shift in that we no longer deem it acceptable to hold these prejudices. We all have a responsibility to change our attitudes and practices to bring about a sea-change in the way we view age.
Ageing Britain is an opportunity – but it is an opportunity to totally re-shape our society, not just the way we treat older people Anything else will just be tinkering at the edges.
WORKPLACE AGEISM– THE MOST VULNERABLE
A recent survey conducted among 10,000 HR directors and managers, asked how vulnerable they thought individuals –young or old – are to age discrimination because of their occupation.
The survey, commissioned and designed by employment law experts Croner, and carried out by the Ludic Group with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), produced the following results:
• Voted most vulnerable to age discrimination were sales representatives, who have an average age of just 30.
• The UK’s 1.4 million construction workers came second, as voted by 50% of participants.
• Waiting staff, of which four in ten are under 19 years old, came in third, as voted by 40%.
• Customer service staff appeared fourth, with nearly 30% of the votes.
• The public sector fared much better, with teachers thought to be at risk of age discrimination by only 13% and nurses by even less at one in ten.
• It seems cleaners can pick up a duster no matter what their age, voted at risk by just 8%
The obvious solution is to embrace later life working, helping to realise the potential of older workers who have so much experience and talent to offer. This is not about being forces to work on, but enabling and encouraging those who want a fuller working life. Older workers can play a vital role in future growth both for individual businesses and the wider economy overall.
We must make sure older people’s skills do not go to waste. As we can look forward to living longer, we need to re-think what ‘retirement’ looks like, especially as the population dynamics change. There are many potential advantages for all of us, including a stronger economy, higher living standards, less pensioner poverty, reduced benefit spending and improved national wellbeing and intergenerational cohesion.
Employers need to focus on the 3 ‘R’s:
· Retain – keeping older workers and their skills in the workplace through, for example, flexible working;
· Retrain – ongoing workplace training irrespective of age, and opportunities for Mid-life Careers Reviews; and
· Recruit – stamp out age discrimination in the recruitment process.