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Ageism is the elephant in the office

Ageism concept
By Imogen O'Rorke
15 August 2023
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
people & culture

The facts are quite compelling. We have an ageing workforce - a third of all UK workers are now aged over 50; and we are heading for a skills drought – a shortfall of 50 million in the workforce is predicted by 2050. If you add to this all the research that shows the majority of over-50s in Britain are open to working beyond the current retirement age (unlike, say, France), then it seems almost bizarre that we are one of the worst performers when it comes to tackling ageism at work.

A report last month from PwC entitled ‘The Golden Age Index’ (which ranks countries according to how they are harnessing the potential of older workers) placed the UK a pitiful 21st, behind (amongst others) Portugal, Finland and Latvia. This is partly a post-pandemic problem – the number of inactive workers over 50 has increased by almost a quarter of a million since the crisis – but there’s a lot more to it.

British employers have been slow to respond to the “longevity megatrend” and older workers who want to re-enter employment are not being supported. According to research from 55/Redefined*, the UK’s champion for the over-50s, 67% of UK businesses had “no intention” to report on age as a diversity measure. And from the talent side, 80% of over-50s surveyed had not heard from a recruiter in the past 12 months. Frustratingly, a large proportion (56%) said they didn’t actually want to retire at 65; but almost a third “felt forced” to do so.

This echoes PwC’s findings that three in five 55-64-year-olds want to continue working or re-enter the workplace but are put off by the lack of flexible contracts or the belief their skills are out of date. Companies are also failing to reskill their people as they age: 65% of employers would not consider offering new training to their older workers, say 55/Redefined.**

Apart from being a discrimination issue, this is also a giant missed opportunity. Fresh research from Bain & Co shows that over 50s are more loyal to their employers, bring more management experience (and work experience generally) and increase company productivity. Older workers are also more likely to adopt a mentoring role, passing on knowledge to younger generations.

So what is the UK Government doing about this elephant in the room? Last year it announced a £70 million package in support for over-50s staying in or getting back to work. And the Flexible Working Bill (ratified last month) will help remove some of the invisible restrictions that are holding older workers back. But more could still be done.

If you look at the countries at the top of the Golden Age Index, they have robust policies in place to incentivise longevity. Take New Zealand (at No.1), which has an Older Workers Employment Action Plan aimed at helping over 50s to develop their skills to meet today’s job market. Iceland (No.2) has one of the most flexible labour markets in the world and supports older workers in transitioning to jobs that suit them as they age. Japan (No.3) has taken a more direct approach by raising the retirement age and supporting the private sector in retaining older workers until they are 70.

Last week, writing in The Guardian, the outgoing Age Discrimination Commissioner for Australia Kay Patterson described ageism as the “least challenged and understood form of age discrimination” and called out governments, businesses and the media for their “lack of interest or will… to invest time and resources into addressing age-related issues.” Revealingly, there is no equivalent commissioner role for England, despite an ongoing campaign led by over 70 ageing charities and non-profits.

*Source: 55/Redefined: The ‘Unretirement Uprising’ 2022

** Source: 55/Redefined: Ageism in the Workplace