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Ageism in the UK workplace
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Over 55s are suffering from institutional ageism and it's hindering the economy

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Ageism is rife within UK workplaces, and it’s not only having a damning impact on over 55s, but is also holding our economy back. With this in mind, HR leaders must see age as equally important as other D&I initiatives and make a proactive effort to recruit and support older people in the workforce.

20th Sep 2021
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Despite those aged 50 years or over making up an increasingly significant proportion of the UK workforce – making up a third in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – 1.3 million over-50s had been furloughed as of May 2021, that’s more than a quarter of the furloughed population.

Over 55s feel shut out, forced out and overlooked, not only within their current roles, but when looking and applying for work. Our own research found that 24% felt ‘forced to retire’ before they wanted to, and for those in work, a third have lost interest in their job due to lack of development opportunities.

The harsh, but resounding impact on individuals dealing with ageism ranges from severe financial difficulties to a decrease in confidence and poorer mental health. 

What’s more, the exclusion of older talent from career progression and available roles is bad for business. Although age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, people over 55 are often disadvantaged by an incorrect, but widely believed, stereotype that everyone wants to retire at age 65 or start ‘slowing down’.

Over 55s feel shut out, forced out and overlooked

Yet, our research found that 56% of employees want to continue working beyond the age of 65. If employers continue to disregard a large proportion of those who are willing to work, they miss out on the experience and skills of older staff and fail to fill available roles, despite rising talent shortfalls.

Unfortunately, societal myths prevail, influencing employers and HR policy makers, with our study finding almost half of employers we asked still encouraging retirement age at 65. 

Above all, society’s perception of over 55s needs to catch up with reality. People are living longer, healthier lives – today, your 50s is only the mid-point of life and far away from retirement. HR leaders must act urgently to stamp out ageism, and there are a number of practical steps for leaders and their teams to attract, retain and retrain older talent.

How can HR leaders tackle ageism? 

Up the age ante in D&I

First and foremost, age must be thought of as equally important as other D&I initiatives, with HR leaders making a proactive effort to increase age diversity. 

When it comes to stamping out conscious or unconscious bias in the hiring process, legal protection for people over 55 can only work to a limited extent.

As an example, when candidates naturally communicate 20 or 30 years’ experience in an industry, conscious or unconscious bias can be seen in hiring managers, making an educated guess at the age of the applicant, despite blind recruiting processes where age or date of birth is removed from CVs. 

Treating age as a D&I initiative will help to bring the issue front-of-mind for those leading HR policy and procedure, ensuring it has the same investment - time, thought and money - as race, gender, sexuality and other characteristics. 

HR leaders should also consider creating new flexible roles that appeal to the over 55 talent pool

Be bias-active

Employers also need to be bias-active by working to understand the level of bias that may already exist in their organisation against age, then delivering training and insight tailored to the business.

Our study found that younger HR decision makers are significantly (39%) less inclined to recruit over-55s compared to their older counterparts, showing that tackling bias is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – you can’t change what isn’t measured, so understanding the current state of play is key before action. 

Flex appeal

HR leaders should also consider creating new flexible roles that appeal to the over 55 talent pool. While many older workers want to work past 55, our research showed that they value their time outside of work too, either for commitments or lifestyle preferences.

Offering permanent roles at three or four days per week, through to rehiring retired professionals for key periods of the year on flexible contracts, may appeal to and attract over-55s and allow employers access to skilled and experienced workers.

Change tack

We have to be pragmatic about skills, particularly in the current climate. With increasing talent shortages and many businesses struggling to fill key roles, hiring by looking beyond experience and technical fit to soft skills, behaviour, motivation, and cultural fit, might be a welcome solution. 

Attracting the over 55 demographic and diversifying workplace culture may require ‘thinking outside the box’ as to how a greater variety of skills and experience can benefit available roles.

Over 55s can offer a wealth of valuable life experience that could easily translate to an aptitude for client-facing or management roles.

Consider creating new ways of recruiting and assessing applicants that help to encourage inclusivity for all.

The will to skill

Skills and development shouldn’t be exclusive to younger talent, but that is sadly often the case. Employers that invest in technical training and reskilling of the over-55s, both current and new employees, will help to recruit and importantly, retain them.

Employers and HR leaders could investigate if they can create schemes targeting this age group or hiring cohorts of over 55s for in-demand roles that require technical or industry training.

Engage the age

Nobody knows what over 55s want better than the people themselves. Be proactive in asking your existing older workforce what they want and how you can best support them to remain engaged in work for longer. 

With a widespread talent shortage impacting many industries, it makes little sense that employers continue to shut out and overlook a third of the UK’s pool of able workers. Furthermore, not solving the ageism problem, and, worse, allowing it to grow, could have seismic short, medium and long-term impacts on the UK’s economy.

Stamping out ageism is more than an ethical issue – with an ageing population, the future of business rests on HR leaders seeing beyond a number and recognising the potential of the largely untapped over 55s talent pool. 

Interested in this topic? Read Why Age Matters.

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By Chris Woodman
21st Sep 2021 09:36

Good article. As someone who is approaching 60 very soon, I'd add that it is the stereotyping which is most damaging. In the last three years, my colleague Liz and I (we happened to be born in the same month) have worked with a developer to design and build an online coaching platform, launched the business and grown it significantly. We use all sorts of technology, work hard and use our experience to manage the business. We have brought together a diverse coaching practice of all ages, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientation and beliefs. We both visit the gym, eat healthily and keep up to date on HR and Coaching. This isn't to be boastful, ego is often less important as you get older - it's to say that stereotypes of older people are way off the pace - many people will be working into their 70's and 80's and thoroughly enjoying it and as current as any other age group. Why are we building our own business? Because the corporate market doesn't hire people of our age and finds ways to let us go. Imagine what a company could have benefited from if they had continued to employ us?

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