In a low-growth, low-productivity, low-birth rate era, with the pensions time bomb ticking away, keeping people working longer is crucial. But older workers are often overlooked for recruitment or promotion due to prejudice and ageism. Karina Robinson writes about her own experience and says that the problem risks getting worse, as more than half of today’s 5-year-olds in developed economies will live to at least 100.
One day you glance up from your iPhone and you are the oldest person in the room. Dyed hair, a deliberate exercise regime and good genes are not enough to spare you. Gravity may now be your constant companion but there is a delight to being older than the CEO, the head of sales, the head of growth and all the other titles spread like confetti. Everyone assumes a wisdom born of experience.
At a recent two-day retreat with Multiverse Computing, a company whose board I advise, colleagues in their early 30s, and even middle-aged ones, sidled up to ask for career advice or how to deal with internal political concerns. The reading glasses I now must wear may be a pain, but they are also a useful accessory to fidget with while considering the dilemmas of employees at a quantum software firm.
The liberation from ego is not fully accomplished – presumably that Buddhist goal only happens when we are dead – but what the French call ‘je m’en foutisme’, which can be loosely translated as ‘I couldn’t give a damn’, is certainly prevalent. At a London School of Economics alumni gathering, having been given the post-lunch slot for a keynote, I figured there was only one way to wake up the audience: perform a haka like the New Zealand All Blacks. All 5 feet 2 inches of me (1.6 metres) did so; only one Argentine alumnus was able to identify my wild manoeuvrings on stage; no one slept through my speech.
The absurdity of the human condition, of our petty ambitions in a vast universe, come home to roost, as mortality feels more and more like a reality, rather than a distant dream. Making a fool of yourself becomes increasingly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things – good training for a non-executive director in asking the question that no one else dares bring up, or one that may, actually, turn out to be foolish. But one stupid question does not negate a long career.
Women over 50 are the fastest growing segment of the UK workforce, while globally in 2021 this group equalled 26% of all women, up from 22% a decade earlier, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). They are often overlooked for recruitment or promotion due to prejudice and ageism. Yet the problem also extends to ageing men, and it will only become worse. In the wealthiest nations, experts predict that more than half of today’s 5-year-olds will live to at least 100.
In a low growth, low productivity, low birth rate era, with the pensions time bomb ticking away, keeping people working longer is crucial. Britt Harris, CEO of the US’s largest endowment fund, recently told the FT that ageing executives should ‘move out of the way’ for younger generations. But the leader of the University of Texas and Texas A&M endowment system is missing a trick.
What we need is more people over 60 staying in work, not least because age diversity directly benefits performance via enriched knowledge, skills and social networks. At the LSE’s The Inclusion Initiative (TII), we’ve been considering how the workplace needs to change to attract and accommodate the older worker.
Rather than thinking only about “age-specific steps”, employers need to focus on benefits that accrue to all, but may be especially relevant to older workers, such as more flexibility and more training at work. The policies aimed at those with disabilities, like wellness programmes and meeting protocols (for example, making slides available before meetings) have benefited all employees, notes TII Researcher Daniel Jolles. Age-inclusive HR policies create more inclusive policies for all workers.
The ‘Great Retirement’ of 50+-year-olds saw the UK and other developed countries lose their older workforce post pandemic. In the UK, this movement has not been reversed and is a key factor in the worker shortage holding back the economy. According to think tank Phoenix Insights, 16 per cent of 50 to 64-year-olds that have left work since 2019 blame long-term sickness or disability for being economically inactive. Here, better provision of health support for long-term conditions is crucial, albeit unrealistic given the state of the NHS in the UK and of the straining health systems of other countries.
Meanwhile, 57 per cent of those in their late 50s say they are not looking for work because they are retired or looking after family. This rises to 68 per cent among those in their early 60s. My generation is burdened with taking care of ageing parents in their 80s and 90s, as older life is extended but with its consequent mental and physical vulnerabilities, while also increasingly taking care of grandchildren due to the astronomical cost of childcare and the two-working-parent family. “Employers urgently need to get serious about offering flexible working that fits alongside other pressures and priorities in people’s lives,” notes Catherine Foot, Director of Phoenix Insights.
One way for employers to tempt older workers back is through signing up to the Centre for Ageing Better’s Age-Friendly Employer Pledge. Signing the Age Pledge signals that the unique needs of an older workforce will be catered to – even if some of them are not dissimilar to those of other groups. When a firm celebrates Pride Month in June it is sending a signal to LGBT+ employees and potential employees that their unique needs will be catered to. It is not an onerous pledge. Measures include identifying a senior sponsor for age-inclusion, ensuring age is specifically named within Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies, encouraging career development at all ages, and hiring age-positively.
An article in the Harvard Business Review focused on how multi-generational teams “bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information and networks.” Given that we currently have a mind-boggling five generations in the workforce, this is not without age-related misconceptions and conflict, which need to be handled. But the interaction can be a game-changer. The article gives the example of the development of the first low-cost open-source metal 3D printer by the Open Sustainability Technology Lab at Michigan Technological University. Former director Joshua Pearce credits the team’s success to members’ willingness to learn from those of other generations, including “the technical skills of Gen X faculty, the software wizardry of Millennial graduate students, and the experienced resourcefulness of Boomer researchers.”
Seventy-six-year-old Elton John hobbled onto the stage at the Glastonbury music festival in June. As the aerial cameras panned over the crowd – so large it caused a Twitter storm – every young person, as well as the middle aged, sang along to 1970 hits like ‘Candle in the Wind.’ Most appropriate though, was ‘I’m still standing’, which he played from a sitting position.
- This blog post represents the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
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