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Older workers take front line in ‘war for talent’

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 Mar 2020

Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for all businesses keen to attract and retain talent. But are firms overlooking the value of older workers in this mix? And is there a case for mandatory age profile reporting, similar to the gender pay gap requirements?

Almost one in three workers in the UK is now over 50, and twice as many people are leaving the workforce because of age than are entering it through the education system. These stark facts mean that older workers have become a key battleground in the ‘war for talent’.

Andy Briggs, the government’s business champion for the Ageing Society Grand Challenge, passionately believes that “inclusive and diverse businesses are better businesses”, and this means not only diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity but also multi-generational. “Not only do businesses need to embrace older workers because of the ageing population but you get better business outcomes as well,” he says.

Joining a podcast called 100 years young in ICAEW’s More than a number series, Briggs warned against accepting some of the many myths around older workers, including that they take more time off sick than younger colleagues and are more likely to leave the organisation. The truth is that workers over 50 are half as likely to take a sick day as someone in their 20s to 30s, and five times less likely to change jobs than workers aged 20 to 25.

Cultural change

Also contributing to the podcast was Alistair McQueen, Retirement and Savings Manager at Aviva. He explained how Aviva, whose youngest and oldest workers are 16 and 76 respectively, has had to challenge some entrenched assumptions and attitudes towards the ageing workforce.

The business found it had 5,000 people in the older worker demographic, with an average length of service of 17 years. “These are the people who know how to get things done, know who to speak to,” says McQueen. It quickly became clear that together these workers have 85,000 years of “corporate knowledge and experience; potential that we were not investing in and not retaining,” he adds.

With figures showing that one in three of these older workers was concerned that age was a barrier to opportunity, Aviva decided it had to challenge a cultural mindset about what it meant to be in this demographic. Part of the firm’s response is a novel ‘mid-life MOT’ for 45 to 60 year-old workers. This covers a range of relevant issues, including finances, careers, and health and wellbeing. The demand for the MOT sessions has exceeded all expectations. “This is a population that is crying out for support,” argues McQueen.

“Let’s push to one side the phrase ‘work until you drop’,” he urges. “That is not our motivation here; our motivation is to give an opportunity to those who do wish, want or need to keep working.”

War for talent

Age discrimination is unlawful, but the barriers to greater inclusivity and opportunity for older workers continue to include unconscious bias and discrimination. To encourage organisations to be more transparent about how they are dealing with these issues, a 2018 report into older people and employment by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee urged the government to extend the existing requirement to report on the gender pay gap to the age profile of their workforces. Briggs supports this proposal and would also like to see a similar approach for ethnicity.

Ongoing ageism, unconscious or not, is more than just a problem for individuals – businesses and wider society need to tap into this pool of often under-utilised workers. “There is a war for talent out there,” stresses McQueen. “And if a business chooses not to invest in an age diverse workforce, it will lose that war for talent; the business will fall behind.”

“There’s definitely discrimination that goes on,” acknowledges Briggs, “and that needs to be addressed. But this is all about businesses realising a fantastic opportunity. Multi- generational workforces are better workforces. They will deliver better customer service, better represent communities, and deliver better results for shareholders. If businesses don’t embrace this, because of the ageing population they will really struggle to get the skills and capabilities they need.”

You can hear more about the challenges facing an ageing workforce – including why Ed Humpherson from the UK Statistics Authority thinks the concept of a single retirement age might have had its day – in ICAEW’s More than a number podcast, 100 years young.