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Why employers need a clear focus on age diversity

11 Jan 2021 By Stuart Lewis

Having a multi-generational workforce can be a significant advantage to businesses, says Stuart Lewis

Our society is ageing: today we are living longer, healthier lives than ever before – a huge demographic shift which has profound implications on many aspects of our lives, not least the number of years we dedicate to paid employment.

On average we are living 10 years longer than our parents’ generation and nearly 20 years longer than the generation before that. In response to these shifting demographics, we are working longer than ever to fund our longer lives. The good news for businesses is that there are huge benefits to be reaped from an experienced workforce staying engaged for longer.

Multi-generational teams

For the first time ever, businesses today can have five generations working under the same roof – what an incredible opportunity to welcome diversity of thought and skills. Organisations that can harness the benefits of multi-generational teams can put themselves at a distinct competitive advantage: not only are age-diverse teams happier, but mobilising the benefits of a broader group of people with a wide range of ideas and knowledge can also lead to greater productivity.

Overqualified or highly qualified?

One of the most common forms of age discrimination in the recruitment process is the feedback ‘you’re overqualified’. The real concern is usually that the candidate will be difficult to manage or will get bored – but rather than examining those questions most candidates simply get lumped into the pot of being ‘overqualified’.

When unpicked, this statement is meaningless: either a person has the skills and qualifications for a role or they don’t. It is also particularly alarming for workforce planning for the future – with earnings peaking in our 40s and most population growth coming from the over 50s, the army of the overqualified is growing in numbers by the day.

Savvy businesses are turning this concept on its head. Leaders who value highly skilled staff are finding ways to engage and utilise this breadth of skills and wisdom through new career paths and are turning this previously shunned audience into a strategic advantage in plugging skills shortages.

Older and wiser 

There is a saying that goes: ‘Knowledge comes from learning and wisdom comes from living.’ Employers should not underrate the value of wisdom and therefore age within teams. Wisdom provides many things including a different lens through which to problem solve, an extra layer of patience, empathy and an often unmatched ability to think laterally. Evidence of these softer skills are sometimes difficult to extract at application and interview skills but are crucial to the smooth running of teams and employee satisfaction more generally.

Ageism in the workplace

Despite the multitude of benefits of running age-diverse teams, the reality is that attitudes to age in the workplace haven’t kept up with the unprecedented demographic shifts we are seeing. This dichotomy means that we are living in a society where we are all living and working longer, but under a cloud of both blatant and second-order (discreet and sometimes unintentional) age discrimination – sadly the last socially acceptable form of discrimination and one that risks being exacerbated by the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic research showed that people in their 50s were more likely to be made redundant than their younger counterparts and, once unemployed, more likely to stay unemployed for the long term than other age groups.

Diversity and inclusion policies are an essential part of creating a high-performing workforce; however, age inclusivity is rarely included among the priorities for creating a diverse culture. There is a strong strategic business case for employers to ensure age diversity has a place on the boardroom agenda, and they have a duty of care to their employees to ensure their inclusivity agenda looks to welcome diversity in all its forms – age included.

Advice for employers

  • Consider your candidate attraction strategy – think about the language used in job adverts to ensure it won’t alienate any specific age groups. Find ways to attract candidates of all ages.
  • Assess your interview approach to check for subconscious bias – if you hear those three little words ‘you are overqualified’ being used then you may want to start unpicking that.
  • Flexible working policies should work for everyone; while parents have spearheaded progress with flexible working policies, they also need to work for other groups. Review your policies and make sure they are inclusive for all.
  • Encourage career development at all ages – get the most out of your team by investing in training and development for all age groups. Ask yourself if there really are the same training opportunities for team members in their 50s as there are for those in their 20s. A 50-year-old still has 16 years of working life ahead of them – plenty of time for one or even two new career paths.

Stuart Lewis is founder of Rest Less

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