Sadly, ageism is rife in the workplace. It may be unconscious and partly cultural, but stereotypes about people of different ages are persistent and pernicious. But we will need to reject any lazy assumptions about older people over the next few decades, as more of us work into our late 60s and beyond.
The UK has an ageing society. Birth rates are falling and, despite a small, pandemic-linked dip in 2020, average life expectancy has been climbing for decades. As this demographic shift has progressed the number of workers aged 50 and over and their share of overall employment has been growing: by mid-2021 there were more than 10.4 million (including 1.2 million aged 65 and over), accounting for almost one third of the workforce.
But the pandemic has changed things. Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Labour Force Survey figures suggest that by mid-2022 the number of economically inactive people aged 50 to 64 had grown by 386,000 since early 2020. Causes included job losses, early retirement and health problems.
Analysis of Labour Force Survey figures by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests there are now just under 1 million economically inactive people aged between 50 and 64 who would like to work. Their loss from workplaces represents a loss of experience, talent and economic potential. “A shrinking of the workforce is bad for growth,” says Emily Andrews, Deputy Director for Work at the Centre for Ageing Better charity. “We still have near-record vacancies and skills shortages.”
There are other reasons why employers benefit from employing older workers. Their expertise and experience can boost productivity, in part by supporting younger colleagues, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and academic research. Centre for Ageing Better research shows that older employees are no more likely than younger workers to take time off for illness; while older workers also tend to stay in jobs for longer, reducing employee turnover and related costs. Employers in other countries that have benefitted from supporting older workers include BMW in Germany, which altered production lines to help older workers, then saw productivity increase by 7%, while defect and absence rates fell.
Working for longer can also be good for employees. In general, work is good for your physical and mental health, says Yvonne Sonsino, Co-Leader, Next Stage, and partner at Mercer, and the author of The New Rules of Living Longer: How to Survive Your Longer Life. “Stress at work can be detrimental, but the stress of not having work, of not having a purpose, can be worse,” she says.
There are good financial reasons to work for longer. “Continuing to work even part time while saving into a pension rather than taking pension income earlier can make a huge difference to lifestyle in retirement,” says Steven Cameron, Pensions Director at financial services firm Aegon. These issues are more urgent for women, who tend to earn less during their careers than men.
Some employers have made progress in attracting, retaining and supporting older workers, but there is a long way to go. Almost two-thirds (62%) of workers aged 55 and over say they have been overlooked for promotion and suffered from a lack of training and progression opportunities, according to research from recruitment consultancy Robert Walters.
The broadest, but arguably most important step an employer can take to become more age-friendly is to instil “a culture which rejects ageism”, says Andrews. This starts with age-neutral recruitment. CIPD labour market economist Jon Boys suggests dropping a blanket requirement for all recruits to have university degrees, as this is more likely to exclude people aged 50 and older who are less likely to have had the opportunity to attend university. Sonsino highlights the need to word recruitment campaigns and advertising using age-neutral language.
The next important change is implementing flexible working, says Andrews. This benefits all employees, who may need to work flexibly at different stages of life. Employers should also ensure that opportunities for training and career progression are open to all workers.
Good occupational health provision can make a huge difference to workers’ physical wellbeing. While there are some physically demanding roles that may become more difficult, or even impossible for some older workers, it may be possible for them to move into alternative roles. Employers should also do more to support workers with caring commitments. Employers for Carers, an employers’ forum that works alongside the charity Carers UK, can support employers seeking to improve practices in this area.
There are age-friendly and less inclusive employers in every industry. Annual Population Survey data shows that agriculture, forestry and fishing is the sector with the highest average employee age (48), ahead of real estate (45) and transport/storage (45). In all three sectors more than one in three workers is aged 50 or over. The sector with the lowest average age is accommodation and food services (35), where only about one in five workers is 50 or over.
But all employers will find it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies unless they can attract more older workers. Sonsino says more employers now understand this. She highlights efforts being made in sectors more usually associated with younger people, such as finance or technology, and new contractual arrangements like Unilever’s U-Work initiative, which allows workers of all ages to take on assignments of differing lengths, spending more time outside work at other times while still being paid a retainer.
Might changes in government policy help? The CIPD is campaigning for the right to request flexible working from the first day of employment. Cameron advocates increasing annual pension contribution allowances for people who have already used pension freedoms to access pension pots early from £4,000 to £10,000, to encourage them to stay in or return to work. Sonsino would like to see more support for people who need to bring age discrimination cases against employers.
But it is the actions of individual employers that will make the most difference. “I’m hoping that as more of us work into our 60s the needs of older workers will come front and centre,” says Andrews. “If you are an age-friendly employer, these practices – flexibility, support for health needs, access to training – will benefit everyone.”
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