The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion : Combatting ageism in the workplace: why and how we need to do it better

December 01, 2022
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Ageism in the workplace

For the first time in the history of the species, people aged 60 years and older outnumber children under the age of 5, making 60-plus the fastest-growing demographic in the world. By 2030, one in six people will be aged 60 years or over, and by 2050, people aged 60 years and older will reach 2.1 billion, representing 22% of the population, double what it was in 2015. While this phenomenon has been happening for a while in high-income countries (think Japan, where 30% of the population is already over 60), improved access to family planning combined with greater life expectancy means that low and middle-income countries are now experiencing the biggest demographic shifts in terms of older people outnumbering young, economically active people.

The implications of this demographic transition for societies and economies are profound. Policies and decisions taken now could be the difference between reaping the rewards of the longevity dividend or battling a prolonged low-growth, low-productivity doomsday scenario. What happens next depends almost entirely on our ability to fundamentally rethink the roles of older adults in our communities and economies. At the heart of the matter is how to ensure older people stay more productive for longer, thereby limiting economic dependence on the state or family members and removing the drag on GDP traditionally associated with an older population.

Accordingly, one of the first policy recommendations for countries facing a middle-aged population bulge is to scrap mandatory retirement. But even in countries (such as the United States) where mandatory retirement on the grounds of age is prohibited by law, 2018 research by ProPublica and the Urban Institute showed that 56% of workers over the age of 50 had been pushed out of jobs before they would have retired willingly, and only one in 10 of them got another job that paid as well, meaning that they suffered sometimes irreversible financial damage.

The authors conclude that this is primarily due to ageism and misperceptions of older adults among employers, a finding echoed in an AARP International report covering 12 countries experiencing a rapid rise in the number of 60-plus citizens relative to other age groups (Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the US). In this study, ageism (as opposed to poor health or disability) was also cited as the primary barrier faced by older people wanting to remain in or re-enter the workforce. This, despite it being generally acknowledged that older employees bring motivation, experience, loyalty, diligence, judgement and sophistication, and a well-developed sense of responsibility to their jobs.

The issue is so pressing that the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade of Healthy Ageing, as part of a global initiative to foster collaboration between governments, academia, businesses, media, and NGOs to improve the lives of older people, their families and the communities in which they live.

Here’s how business leaders can be part of the solution:

  • Embrace the era of the five-generation workforce. In less than 8 years from now, the first millennials will celebrate their 50th birthdays, the first gen-Xers will turn 65, and the first boomers will turn 85. Multi-generation workplaces are not a new idea: At Disney World in Orlando, Florida, an area famous for its retiree population, octogenarians routinely take on customer-facing service roles, working alongside students and interns.
  • Review your retirement policies. Mandatory retirement clauses are the ultimate ageist practice and are increasingly outlawed in many jurisdictions, barring a few professions where physical fitness is a key job requirement. Not everyone wants to retire when they turn 60 or 65. Being forced to do so can contribute to premature physical and mental decline. Equally, a flexible retirement policy allows employees close to retirement age to exit earlier if they no longer want to work, preventing situations where employees hang on grimly until they can claim their pension – a practice that impacts productivity and morale and feeds into negative stereotypes of older people.
  • Check pension rules for unintended consequences. For example, a pension scheme that allows employees to access a lump-sum portion of their savings, but only once they retire, forces many older employees out of work sooner than they want to if they need cash to settle a debt in the wake of children going to university or to help parents in need of care.
  • Help employees to reframe retirement. Retirement has long been equated with freedom from work, but as the World Economic Forum sees it, a key part of extended middle age is the freedom to work if desired. This means preparing younger employees for middle age by impressing upon them that they have a personal obligation to stay employable by upskilling, prioritising their health, and remaining current in terms of industry developments. Enlightened employers will do their bit to facilitate this. BMW, for example, one of the leaders in developing multi-generational teams, provides health days with free medical check-ups, as well as access to therapeutic treatments and a gym, while staff canteens prioritise healthy eating.
  • And ensure your employee wellness programmes are geared to help employees adapt to the ageing process with dignity and security. Having only just gotten over the taboo of menstruation in the workplace, it’s time to include menopause in wellness programmes.
  • Consider a dedicated upskilling programme to allow older employees to keep pace with technology. One of the resistance points to employing older people is the perception that they are either not tech-savvy, or averse to learning or using tech. Neuroscience tells us that as we age, our brains learn differently, and we rely a lot more on repetition. Establishing new tech employee resource groups can help reinforce learning through repetition and practice.
  • Invest in technology that reduces the side effects of longevity, such as apps that provide timely reminders of tasks and activities, and CRM systems that allow detailed prompts and serve as aide-memoirs, an investment that will benefit everyone in the organisation.
  • Include ageism in your DE&I policy and treat any discrimination based purely on age in the same way you would treat discrimination against a person based on race, culture, gender or sexuality.
  • Assess your hiring methods and interview protocols for implicit bias against older applicants. As SHRM points out, much of ageism is subtle and socially condoned: “HR leaders contribute to age discrimination when they use ‘coded language’ in job descriptions that correlate with younger workers. Are you looking for ‘recent grads’ or ‘digital natives,’ for example?” Equally discriminatory are phrases like ‘fit in with a young team,’ or youth-focused buzzwords such as ‘ninja’ or ‘guru’.
  • Be flexible and creative around offering part-time and consultancy work to older employees. When it comes to rightsizing and cost-cutting, managers will often look to axe older employees first as they are deemed expensive. But with a bit of creativity and consultation, older employees are often prepared to trade large salaries for a less demanding schedule or a flexible, part-time role while maintaining certain perks such as free access to the company’s IT department or a hot desk at the office.
  • Acknowledge the competitive advantages of including older adults in leadership and decision-making roles. It’s not just your workforce that’s ageing – your customers and consumers are too. There are significant advantages to having sales teams that can engage with older clients, and mature employees will be attuned to solving problems and devising innovative products and services catering to a market that constitutes a significant part of any economy.
  • Set up formal mentoring and reverse mentoring programmes. Age diversity is about ensuring that older workers are included in decision-making processes and that younger employees are given opportunities to learn from them. Mentoring and reverse mentoring contribute to business continuity, maintain institutional memory and ensure that younger people benefit by being exposed to valuable skills and experience while allowing older people to stay current.
  • Run pilot projects with age-diverse teams. An experiment conducted in one of the biggest BMW sites in Dingolfing, Bavaria, in 2012 involved setting up two identical production lines. On one line, the average age of the team was 39 years; the other was closer to 50. Both tapes ran at the same speed, and each team was required to complete the same tasks. The older team, however, had ergonomically adjusted workplaces, including special flooring and individualised safety footwear. The results were instructive: the older team worked to a higher standard, a factor ascribed to their superior experience, which led to fewer mistakes. Absentee rates due to sickness were identical across both teams. At the end of the trial, many of the young participants wanted to switch to the older team.
  • Actively include businesses owned and run by older entrepreneurs and service providers in your procurement mix.
  • Treat poor performance as poor performance, and not a symptom of ageing.
  • Correct myths and misperceptions about older employees. One such persistent myth is that by declining to retire, older employees are taking jobs from younger ones. This is based on the lump of labour fallacy which is the mistaken belief that there is a finite amount of work to go around. Despite this zero-sum approach having been disproved by economists, it persists. The truth is that increasing the labour pool can expand the overall size of the economy, leading to further job creation. In contrast, reducing the amount of labour employed would decrease economic activity, thus further decreasing the demand for labour.
  • Make your workplace an ageist-free zone. Healthy ageing starts, says the UNFPA, by developing a new rights-based culture of ageing and a change of mindset and societal attitudes towards ageing and older persons, from welfare recipients to active, contributing members of society. Ageing is the one thing we all have in common, so rooting out and challenging outdated beliefs and prejudices will ultimately benefit us all.

With special thanks to Andrea Brand, equity partner at Jack Russell Consulting/ AltoPartners Germany, for sharing her experience of developing multi-generational teams at Rolls Royce and BMW in Munich.