As part of our commitment to diversity and inclusion we’re launching a series focused on older workers and the workplace. In this first instalment, Emma-Claire Kavanagh – a member of the BIE Board and leadership team, and a specialist in interim management within human resources, HR transformation and people-related change – looks at age discrimination. Emma-Claire has seen first hand the difference that being an age-inclusive employer can make to people’s working lives, and she is passionate about supporting equal opportunities for candidates and employees of all ages.

What is age discrimination?

Age discrimination or ageism occurs when someone is treated unfairly due to their age, and it is the most common form of reported workplace discrimination in UK workforces, according to CIPHR.

Some protections have been introduced; the default retirement age was removed in 2011, meaning that employers could no longer forcibly retire someone, and age became a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act. However, older workers continue to face significant disadvantages, inequalities and challenges in the workplace, not least due to the fact that the Equality Act permits age discrimination if it can be “objectively justified”.

Rapidly changing population dynamics

Overlooking the contributions and benefits of older workers is shortsighted. Global workforces are ageing rapidly as people continue to live and work longer than ever. The OECD Promoting an Age-Inclusive Workforce report asserts that by 2050 more than four in 10 people in advanced economies will be over the age of 50. The number of older workers in the UK has already increased 36% over the past two decades.

Multigenerational, inclusive workforces are the future – and the key to future success and growth, according to 83% of executives surveyed by AARP. Nevertheless, nearly a quarter of workplaces in the UK are unprepared for the growing number of older workers and only one in five are currently discussing the strategic implications of an ageing workforce, according to a poll from the Centre for Ageing Better. The result? Around half of older workers are leaving the market prematurely.

This particularly affects women. According to the Office for National Statistics: “Women are far more likely to be economically inactive prior to State Pension Age (SPA) than men at all older ages.” A House of Commons report attributes this in large part due to the difficulty in accessing work, due to the majority of caregiving responsibilities still falling on women. The impact of menopause also plays a role, which we will look at in closer detail in the next instalment of this series.

With the UK’s population dynamics shifting, employers must take action to seize the advantages of multigenerational teams, and provide those who want to work with opportunities. Taking the time to build inclusive processes and practices now will make organisations more adaptable and resilient in the years to come.

The benefits of being an age-friendly employer

Older workers are an underutilised, available resource. Investing in them and in turn mobilising a workforce that allows for intergenerational learning and collaboration ensures a more robust talent pipeline, enhanced knowledge and experience retention. It also promotes greater productivity, company loyalty, innovation, diversity of thought and a workforce that is motivated and confident.

In short: employers that support employees throughout their career lifecycles and adapt to their changing needs are more likely to attract, motivate and retain said employees.

What challenges do older workers face?

A 2021 report from Legal & General Retail Retirement and the Centre for Economics and Business Research revealed that more than 50% of workers aged 50+ who have searched for work felt that their employers were less likely to hire them due to their age. Half of respondents agreed that their age was a “significant barrier” to their search.

Other challenges reported:

  • Overqualified for the role: 37%
  • Their skills did not meet expected standards: 35%
  • Unsuitable hours/lack of flexibility: 33%
  • Poor health: 17%
  • Caring responsibilities: 9%

The challenge of getting a job over the age of 50 has been further compounded by the impact of the pandemic, with older workers feared to be at a greater risk of redundancy following the end of furlough in 2021, due to the number of older workers still on the scheme when it ended. Of those 800,000 workers, 500,000 of them were over 50, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Many older workers struggle to stay in work due to stereotypes, bias and discrimination, as well as contending with other factors, including lack of access to training, career stagnation or lack of future prospects, health conditions, caregiving responsibilities and more.

Age-friendly employment practices

To plan for an ageing workforce and ensure you are an age-friendly employer, there are three core areas to focus on – recruitment, employee retention and training – each of which will require the implementation of strategies and policies. These are some best practices to consider and explore:

  • Conduct an age audit: Take stock of the age diversity of your current organisation and then monitor it moving forwards as a diversity characteristic.
  • Remove age discrimination from the recruitment process: Examine the wording and imagery you use at all stages, from adverts to job offers, and scrutinise the accessibility of your hiring process. Watch out for buzzwords and phrases that suggest an age group, if not outright describe it (“fit and enthusiastic”).
  • Train existing staff: Diversity training can help tackle bias company-wide. Line managers are particularly important in creating age-friendly workplaces; they should be trained in how to manage and support older workers.
  • Get employee buy-in: Creating an age-inclusive culture requires participation from every individual. Consider establishing a committee to help monitor age diversity in your organisation. Or explore other practices, including team development exercises and multigenerational learning opportunities (workers across age groups help each other with coaching, mentoring and skill-sharing).
  • Create a culture of learning and development: Help employees, regardless of age, keep their skills and competencies up to date throughout their career, particularly with regards to IT. For those in physically demanding jobs, explore the possibility of training them for other roles.
  • Offer career reviews: Regular career reviews, particularly around mid-life, will allow for employers and employees to identify and implement career next steps, including skill-building goals, learning opportunities, potential retirement plans, or even the scope for early intervention with any developing issues.
  • Explore alternative working practices: Look into flexible working, care leave, gap breaks, phased retirement and other structures that allow you to retain the skills of your experienced workforce by cutting down on their work, rather than losing them completely. Formal re-entry programmes (that include necessary training to bring them back up to speed) are also beneficial in order to welcome back employees after a career break.
  • Establish comprehensive health and wellbeing practices: Ensure you are cognisant of the needs of your older workers, both in terms of mental and physical health (including the menopause), and are providing them with the support they need.

Useful further resources:

Written by

Emma-Claire Kavanagh

Emma-Claire is a member of the executive leadership team. She delivers senior interim solutions across all sectors and areas of HR, and has a particular passion for business transformation projects.

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