Diversity has become a key business topic in the past year. The consensus among businesses is now that diversity – whether in relation to gender, ethnicity or sexuality – is a good thing. Yet one measure of diversity is slightly behind this curve: age. Some businesses and sectors are continuing to perpetuate the myth that younger is better in the workplace.
In 2006, the government introduced its Employment Equality regulations to protect workers of all ages against age-related prejudice. Despite this, older workers, loosely defined as people over the age of 50, are still more likely to be adversely affected by this type of discrimination.
It seems there are several unfair assumptions about the ability of older workers, which in turn influences how people behave towards older job applicants. This is particularly hard to justify as older workers tend to be more experienced.
As part of our Working Late research project, we explored some of the views managers held about older workers. Here are five of the most common stereotypes about senior professionals – and how they can be challenged.
They can’t learn new things
There’s a lot of research that dispels this myth. Older workers have been found to have lots of experience of adapting to new tools, environments or working practices. A perception remains that successful entrepreneurs are young, often exemplified by Silicon Valley wunderkinds like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Snap Inc’s Evan Spiegel. Yet the average age of entrepreneurs when they found their companies is actually between 42 and 47.
They are less productive
There is little evidence supporting this theory in people of working age, particularly when productivity has become a UK-wide issue over recent years. We might expect physical and cognitive abilities to decline with age, but workers make up for any potential declines in productivity with the benefits of experience. As such, age and workplace performance do not show a link in research.
They take more time off sick
Research has shown this to be an inaccurate assumption. On average, it is true that older workers tend to take more time off for long-term sickness, but they take less time off due to short-term illnesses. Older workers are also at lower risk of accidents in the workplace (though they do suffer more fatal accidents). This means the typical amount of sick leave taken by employees of all ages averages out.
They will retire and leave the organisation
The average age of the population is increasing, which means people are working until later in life. There is no longer a default retirement age, so employers should recognise that a worker employed with lots of experience could easily stay with the organisation for many more years.
Today, there is no guarantee that a 24-year-old new starter will stay with the business for longer than a few years because people move jobs more frequently than in the past. On average, we now change job around every five years and employers are responding to this by improving flexibility within their roles. This should in turn help older employers embed into working life.
They are overqualified (and this is bad)
In some of our recent research, terms such as ‘inflexible’ and ‘overqualified’ were examples of the feedback given to older applicants when they were rejected for jobs. It’s hard to justify the use of the term “overqualified”, although it can perhaps be explained by employers being concerned about people leaving the job after a short space of time for a job that better matches their skill set.
Meanwhile, there are many good reasons that an experienced worker may want to take a step down to a role that requires fewer specialist skills than their previous job. Also, older workers often report wanting part-time, more flexible, or less stressful jobs, which might explain their moving to jobs they may be viewed as overqualified for.
There are many benefits to having a diverse workforce – but that must extend to including and valuing older people in the workplace, too.
Ricardo Twumasi and Sheena Johnson are lecturers in Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School