With so much focus on millennials and generation Z, it’s easy to forget how quickly the older population is growing. In 50 years’ time, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over – a population roughly the size of London, according to the Office for National Statistics.
And with more people living longer, more are continuing to work past retirement too. Between 1993 and 2018, employment rates doubled for those aged 65 years and over.
Despite these statistics, though, age discrimination at work is a growing problem.
According to a recent study by business insurance provider Hiscox, 21% of those over the age of 40 have been the victim of age discrimination in the workplace, 80% of whom say it has impacted their career trajectory. A separate study by the job site Glassdoor recently found that over half of UK employees have experience of discrimination at work, with 39% witnessing or experiencing ageism - including younger workers.
What is ageism?
“Ageism is often based on false assumptions about older workers, such as that they are harder to train, lack technological skills or are too expensive to hire. Or about younger workers that they may be less experienced, knowledgeable and harder to garner respect from older peers, colleagues or customers,” says Jo Cresswell, a careers trends analyst at the job and recruiting site Glassdoor. “Tired misconceptions about the millennial workforce can be harmful and divisive.
“Ageism can first become apparent in the recruiting process, from a job specification which requests candidates that have recently graduated, to requesting a minimum or, indeed, maximum number of years’ experience,” Cresswell says. “On the job, ageism can be evident when company social events revolve around late night drinks and dinners which may exclude those that have children, or when only older employees are invited into meetings with senior stakeholders.”
Why ageism is bad for business
Firstly, companies that allow ageism will miss out on highly experienced, specialist older workers, as well as younger people who are fast learners and full of potential.
“There is a far wider age range for people in the workplace than ever before,” Cresswell says. “Businesses today have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate performance and innovation by taking advantage of the extensive experience, knowledge, and unique perspective that a multi-generational workforce brings.
“If ageism persists - whether against older or younger employees - it will unbalance the workforce and limit the progression of those at either end of the age spectrum. This will in turn hinder the long-term prospects of a company.”
Hiring people all within a similar age bracket can lead to creativity bubble and stifle innovation, too. Instead, an age-diverse workforce can bring different perspectives, new ideas and improve problem solving.
“Different age groups naturally have unique skills and perspectives, developed on the back of extreme technological and social changes within the last century,” Cresswell explains. “It is important to hire employees from all generations, but it is even more important to foster an environment of collaboration and communication where different generations appreciate the benefits that their colleagues of all ages can bring.”
As the population ages, employers may find that their customers age too. A workforce that understands a firm’s clients may well help the business to stay relevant and add insight and empathy to their customer service.
How to address ageism
There are various ways to tackle ageism in the workplace, including mentoring. “The traditional form of mentoring sees more experienced workers pass on knowledge, guidance and support to younger, less experienced workers,” Cresswell says. “Reverse mentoring is an equally important initiative that is growing in popularity which sees younger workers mentoring their older peers.”
Formal training on ageism in the workplace may well help too. According to the Hiscox research, however, 62% of all workers received no formal training related to age-based discrimination in the previous 12 months.
It’s also important to make sure job adverts don’t put off certain generations too. When advertising a position, employers can’t include age limits - and should avoid using certain words and terms which exclude younger or older workers. Posting a job looking for “digital natives” may deter older generations from applying, for example. Instead, they should only specify the information that’s relevant to the job.
Although it’s a legal requirement for companies to create an atmosphere of equality and inclusion, it’s also good for business too.