Age discrimination: alive and well in 2018?

2018 was supposed to be a year of positive change for workplace inclusion. The discourse around gender equality reached new levels of intensity and the outcry about the gender pay gap was widespread and covered extensively in the media.

More organisations seem to be getting on board with diversity management. A recent survey by PwC showed that 87 per cent of global CEOs are focused on diversity and inclusion - an increase on the 2015 figure of 67 per cent and a huge leap forward since 2011, when it was just 11 per cent. That’s good news for business as evidence suggests that heterogeneous organisations perform all the better for it.

But it seems we need a more diverse understanding of diversity, because while gender and ethnicity are the focus of many corporate equality and inclusion policies, other considerations remain largely under the radar.

Age: the forgotten barrier

Paul Owen, Director of Operations at The Age Diversity Forum, says the age agenda is "the biggest area of bias receiving the lowest level of attention".

Research from the Centre for Ageing Better found that almost half of workers believe their age would hold them back when applying for a job - and nearly one in seven think they have been turned down for work due to their age. The study also found that nearly one in five workers (18 per cent) have hidden, or considered hiding, their age when applying for a job since they turned 50.

The same research found that, while 40 per cent of employees over the age of 50 were aware of their employer having a policy on age discrimination, nearly half (47 per cent) said it made no difference.

Insurance company Aviva also published research on the subject. This revealed that more than half of over-50s feel unsupported at work, despite the fact that two-thirds of them planned to retire later than they had expected a decade ago.

Read: Should offices have mental health first aiders?

What’s wrong with being older and wiser?

But why are so many more mature workers undervalued and unsupported? Surely they have skills and experience to offer by the bucketload?

There are lots of reasons, according to Paul Owen, based mostly on assumptions: "Older workers are perceived to be more expensive. But that’s not necessarily the case and it may be quite the opposite. They may be in a financial position - paid off mortgage, kids flown the nest, and so on - that means they don’t need to earn as much money as someone younger might."

Then there’s a sense of intimidation felt by some younger workers. "Someone may interview a prospective employee who’s older than them and think they must be after their job," says Paul. "It’s just an assumption, based on age, and it may well be completely unfounded."

"There’s also a perception about older workers when it comes to training - the idea that older workers don’t want to train. But, according to a US labour study, if you train a younger person, they may stay with the company for an average of three years, while an older person is more likely to give you another seven, eight, even nine years. If you train someone who’s 55, chances are they may still be with you when they’re 65, or even 70."

And the prejudice doesn’t end there. "There’s even a perception that older workers are less productive," says Paul. "That they don’t like change, that they’re less motivated, often off sick, and so on."

The scale of the problem: the missing million

Government research suggests that by the mid-2030s, more than half of all adults in the UK will be over 50. At the other end of the spectrum, the number aged below 50 is projected to decrease significantly, and if inward migration wanes after the UK leaves the EU, there will be even fewer younger workers.

Despite the economy becoming increasingly reliant on more mature workers, it is apparent that many older people who want to work do not have equal access to employment. The government’s Fuller Working Lives strategy, which was published last year, acknowledges that "there are almost one million individuals aged 50 - 64 who are not in employment but state they are willing to or would like to work". These people are often referred to as the ‘missing million’.

Sizing up government support

There is a clear need for better support to help employees make the most of their extended working lives. Cue the government’s Industrial Strategy, which aims to "ensure that people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life".

This White Paper identifies meeting the needs of an ageing society as one of four 'grand challenges' that can boost the UK’s productivity and put it at the forefront of the industries of the future. It pledges to "support sectors to adapt to a changing and ageing workforce" and to "make flexible working a reality for all employees across Britain".

But the government was criticised for its 'disappointing' response to a report by the Women and Equalities Committee, Older People and Employment. Many experts pointed to the lack of any clearly defined action to protect older workers from discrimination, or to guarantee flexible working opportunities.

Looking for a better deal

Amongst those who champion age diversity in the workplace is The Age Diversity Forum, a social enterprise that works with employers and job-seekers. It lobbies to raise awareness of the 'hidden' workforce and the practical steps that can be taken to employ and support them, creating a better deal for businesses and workers alike.

Unfair treatment in work

As Paul Owen explains, The Age Diversity Forum has made great strides, with its corporate partner programme, Champion Age Diversity, in supporting employers to retain and recruit key skills and experience.

Getting those who want to work into work - or back to work - is a key priority. But we also need to up our game in terms of the way we treat older workers once they’re there. It’s no good having a diverse workforce if not everyone feels able or welcome to participate and achieve their potential.

Read: The barriers that lead to just 15% of Autisitc people holding full-time jobs

Worryingly, the Centre for Ageing Better’s research showed that nearly a third (32 per cent) of older employees feel they are offered fewer opportunities for training and progression than their younger colleagues. Almost a third (29 per cent) didn’t think their workplace values older workers, and 28 per cent didn’t think their managers were good at managing mixed-age teams. Twenty-seven per cent believe that their employer values youth above experience and knowledge, and only 14 per cent said that workplace culture is positive towards them.

Leaving early

As a result, many older workers who can afford to are leaving work early. According to 2017 research by Prudential, as many as 60 per cent of over-50s who are planning to give up work want to do so before they are due to receive their pension. According to the report, many are even "willing to take a hit on their expected retirement income, to the tune of £1,250 a year, in exchange for giving up the daily grind".

What is age discrimination?

According to CIPD, age discrimination occurs when someone is unfairly disadvantaged for reasons relating to their age which cannot be objectively justified. It has been illegal in the UK since 2006, with the law now incorporated into the Equality Act 2010. People of all ages can be affected, but the growing number of older people in employment makes this group a key focus.

Business benefits of an age-diverse workforce

Few could argue against the ethical case for promoting and supporting diversity in the workplace. And while legislation sets the minimum requirements for fair treatment, an effective diversity agenda goes far beyond legal compliance.

As McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report highlights, diversity management can also give companies an advantage in competing for the best talent, boost decision-making and innovation, improve customer orientation, increase employee satisfaction, and foster positive attitudes and behaviours in the workplace.

And, looking ahead, it’s important for organisations to consider the strategic implications of an ageing workforce. Those who overlook the skills of older workers will face a labour and skills shortage in the future, the Centre for Ageing Better has warned.

Benefits for society

As well as talent and experience, an age-diverse workforce can offer societal benefits such as social flexibility and integration. As Paul Owen explains, there’s a strong correlation between employment and overall social wellbeing: "Active people - employed people - are happy people. Being at work reduces isolation. It adds to wellbeing and self-worth."

The economic benefits are clear too. The Centre for Ageing Better estimates that halving the 'employment gap' between workers aged between 50 and state pension age and those in their late 40s could increase the UK’s GDP by up to £20 billion per year, through increased tax revenues and a lower welfare bill.

Taking action

There’s plenty of evidence to show that diverse workforces make for more productive, progressive places to work, so we know that they make good business sense. But, as Paul Owen cautions, changing cultures is about more than just words: "Everyone’s got the right policies in place, but those policies need to be enacted by people further down the organisation. Making a real difference is about turning words into action."

This echoes one of the findings of PwC’s Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarking Survey, which noted: "Many organisations are struggling with translating D&I strategy into action. While D&I is a stated value or priority area for 87 per cent of organisations, 42 per cent of respondents still feel diversity is a barrier to employee progression".

For leaders, keeping a handle on what is being done in the name of diversity right across the organisation, and even beyond it, is key. Don’t assume that anyone - or anything - is living those values in the same way you do, as Paul warns: "Where some companies can get let down is when they don’t have control of their recruitment - when it’s outsourced to an agency, and that age-diverse culture isn’t in the employment agency. And that might be because the process is done electronically; it’s bias that’s accidentally built in."

Hiring ‘age-positively’ is one of five tips from the Centre for Ageing Better aimed at helping employers be more inclusive of older workers:

  1. Be flexible about flexible working: Offer more flexibility, manage it well and help people know their options.
  2. Hire age-positively: Actively target candidates of all ages, and minimise age bias in recruitment processes.
  3. Ensure everyone has the health support they need: Enable early and open conversations, and early and sustained access to support for workers with health conditions.
  4. Encourage career development at all ages: Provide opportunities for people to develop their careers and plan for the future at mid-life and beyond.
  5. Create an age-positive culture: Equip HR professionals and managers to promote an age-positive culture, and support interaction and networking among staff of all ages.

So, if 2018 wasn’t as transformative for age diversity as it could have been in your workplace, you know what to do in 2019!

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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