Ageism is not good for business

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Written by Steve Butler on 23 November 2022 in Features
Features

Steve Butler explains why stamping out age unconscious bias in the workplace is vital

Age unconscious bias affects everyone but when it comes to the workplace it can negatively affect recruitment, appraisals and promotions and is something companies need to tackle.

Imperial College London describes unconscious (or implicit) bias as the associations and assumptions that people hold that are outside of their conscious awareness and control. It’s triggered by the brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. 

Age unconscious bias is a major challenge for organisations to overcome as they exist in an ageist society which it’s difficult to escape from. It’s everywhere – in language, in newspapers and on TV and in the way older people are treated in society. 

In the workplace it plays out through stereotypes. It’s easy to stereotype an older worker as being no good with technology, not wanting to be involved in training or not being ambitious. 

At a time when UK firms are struggling to recruit talent holding on to older workers makes good business sense

Equally a younger worker may feel they don’t get the respect they deserve and struggle to connect with older workers as people assume they lack experience and knowledge. These assumptions are rife in the workplace and can impact individuals and shape their behaviour. 

Unfortunately, this makes it hard for firms to deal with it and most are just ignoring age discrimination.  One of the issues is because of its intersection with other aspects of diversity and inclusion it often means it’s not considered a standalone issue.

But by failing to recognise it, firms end up losing older workers and this can have a big impact on the business, and on the younger generations that need to learn from older colleagues.

The challenges 

Companies will often choose older workers to make redundant if they want to save money as they are the high earners, forgetting they are also the ones with the most knowledge. This is not great for the individual as they want to end their career on a high, but equally it’s no good for the organisation as they lose experienced workers. 

At a time when UK firms are struggling to recruit talent holding on to older workers makes good business sense.  Recent analysis by over-50s digital community, Rest Less highlights that more than 700,000 Britons over the age of 50 have left the workforce since the pandemic hit. But a recent Office for National Statistics survey with people aged 50 to 65 who are not working found that two fifths would consider returning to the workforce.

Changing demographics are adding to the challenges. By 2025, there will be one million more people aged 50 and over and 300,000 fewer people 30 and under in the workplace. Today, 19% of the population is aged 65 and over. In the next decade this will have increased to 22%.

Shifting demographics, combined with people leaving the workplace early, is resulting in a real talent squeeze as there are fewer people joining the workforce from a smaller demographic at the younger end of the workforce.  

A consequence of this is less older workers to support and mentor younger workers to help them hone their skills and learn the job.  This could impact future talent pipelines as there are lots of skills that are not tangible and firms need people, not online courses, to impart the more subtle but equally important abilities required for a role. 

Addressing age unconscious bias is therefore vital for firms as they navigate changing demographics to ensure they have a talented, diverse and skilful workforce. 

The solutions

Overcoming age unconscious bias is about calling it out and talking about it. Employers need to normalise the conversations around age, and, as with other areas of diversity and inclusion, they must put themselves in the shoes of the individual. 

This means understanding what it is like to be a younger and an older worker in their organisation. Once they do this, they can work out how to get the best out of their people no matter what stage they are in their career. 

One of the first steps is to add age to diversity and inclusion processes and always look through an age lens. For instance, ensure recruitment adverts don’t discriminate and appeal just to younger workers. If an organisation wants to recruit someone because of their communication skills and experience, they don’t want to limit the talent pool and put off older workers applying. 

If someone older sees an advert and the language is clearly directed to a younger individual they are immediately switched off and won’t apply. Also, at interview stage if the panel is a group of very young individuals talking about a very modern workplace then they may be put off accepting the job if they get offered it. 

Firms also need to be more flexible with opportunities such as making job-sharing and condensed hours more readily available. Older workers often have family and caring responsibilities so looking at ways to keep them in the workplace longer through more flexible working options is key. 

Training is an area where age unconscious bias often exists. Budgets are usually skewed towards the younger generations, but older people want to learn too.  As people are working longer they need to re-skill and re-train. 

By offering training and development opportunities to older workers firms can keep them in the workforce longer and reduce having to recruit and train new people which is often more costly.

Opening up channels of communication between the different age groups in the organisation is important too, otherwise conflict can arise.  Research suggests that multi-generational workforces are more innovative and productive. Firms need to work out how to get the best out of different age groups. 

For instance, older workers have more experience in managing client relationships, handling difficult conversations and delivering services to clients. Younger colleagues are able to challenge the way work is done; they come with new ideas about the way that work should be carried out and how to deliver work to clients and customers. By getting the two groups to work together, clients and customers are offered a much better service. 

Listening and understanding different perspectives is essential. Younger people can often be branded ‘snowflakes’ but this means there are a lot of snowflakes out there who think and feel the same. When firms are developing services and products it’s essential to understand the different generations. Older and younger workers may not always agree, but they must accept each other’s perspective as it’s valuable and reflective of wider society. 

Conclusion 

Most firms aren’t yet having conversations around older workers, but this is short-sighted. There is a huge opportunity to turn changing demographics into something positive for their business and to embrace the different skills, experiences and attitudes of each generation. Addressing age unconscious bias is key. 

Steve Butler is CEO at Punter Southall Aspire. He recently shared his perspective on age unconscious bias in a new documentary from the Chartered Management Institute entitled, Workplace in Review: Age.

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