There has been considerable focus on youth employment in recent years, but the UK’s demographics are such that the fastest growing segment of the workforce is the over-50s.
An ageing workforce brings with it a number of implications for jobs and skills, as well as longer-term societal issues of health and well-being. One of the responses has been to adjust state pension ages, such as in the UK and Australia, where the retirement age has been increased to 68 and 70 respectively to encourage people to work longer, and to reflect the reality that there aren’t enough young people coming into employment to plug the skills gap.
And none of this should be a surprise. Increasing life expectancy will inevitably lead to the extension of our working lives. For the first time, the proportion of UK employees working beyond what used to be retirement age is growing more quickly than the numbers entering work.
The broadening of demographics and the increasing prevalence of four-generation workforces (Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials), are creating interpersonal and managerial issues that rarely existed in the past.
The CIPD’s People Management magazine reveals a growing body of academic and anecdotal evidence that suggests over-50s face deeply unfair barriers in the recruitment process, despite corporate commitments to diversity and inclusion. Yet too few companies audit their age profile in the same way they do gender or ethnicity. Career sites and company brochures often portray teams of young people, something that can put off older employees from applying for a role, even if their skills and experience are a perfect match. Although it is recommended age be removed from CVs, the topic often comes up at the interview phase in any case.
Once you’re in, you’ll find most talent programmes are inherently ageist. Talk of ‘high potentials’ is too often shorthand for ‘young’. Though older employees can be included in such initiatives, the concept lends itself to those who have recently joined an organisation or a sector, and who exhibit the ambition and willingness to advance quickly. The words we use to describe talent – whether ‘fast track’, ‘high potential’ and ‘high flier’ only exacerbate the problem. And in this way, language becomes part of the stories we tell ourselves to justify the biases we create.
Research shows that an age diverse workforce pays dividends in much the same way as gender and ethnic diversity does, by enabling organisations to better understand and meet the needs of their diverse customer base. Employers need to get to grips with how to manage the varying needs of a workforce that spans multiple generations. This means thinking carefully about the way jobs are designed, how to attract, recruit and retain talent, and how to train managers to effectively manage older as well as younger workers. It also calls for new approaches to learning and knowledge sharing, reflecting different stages of people’s careers, and helping the transfer of older workers’ knowledge before they retire.
A growing trend towards more agile ways of working, together with an open approach to flexible and part-time work, will support older employees to work longer. ‘Job crafting’ is a concept where employer and employee work together to design a job that is useful to both sides. That might include building more flexibility into a job, or creating a new role that better utilises someone’s experience in a way that is likely to keep the working happily and productively for longer.
Forging better inter-generational connections in the workplace is another way of helping to utilise the talent of older workers. Two-way mentoring is on the rise, with younger employees teaching older colleagues about social media, for example, and older workers sharing life-skills with their younger colleagues. But in my experience, older employees are often the most enthusiastic adopters of new technology and younger people aren’t all disloyal opportunists who want ‘portfolio’ careers!