Imagine being 55 years of age or above. Or perhaps you are in this age group and through unforeseen circumstances (e.g. redundancy or workplace age discrimination) you lose your job. As a mature age person, on average, it will take you 68 weeks to find your next job. If you’re over 50 and currently working, you have a 27% chance of experiencing age discrimination in the workforce. Workforce ageism. We’ll all be over 50 one day, so why is ageism so prevalent in the workforce? And why should we care?
The word ‘ageism’, first coined by Robert N. Butler, M.D. in 1969, makes assumptions and discriminates against people based on their age. Underpinning ageism are age stereotypes. Age stereotypes include everything from attitudes and beliefs about a person’s behaviour through to notions about their likes and dislikes.
It is a fact that lifespans are longer today than at any other time in history. In 2050, over 25% of Australia’s population will be over 65. Yet, beliefs about what older people can or can’t do are based on an outdated and culturally reinforced idea of what it is like to be 55. As Dr Helen Barrie states in this short video, we’ve compressed morbidity. People are not only living longer, they are living in good health for longer.
Fact: Almost 25% of Australia’s population is over 55 years of age. Yet, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the workforce comprises only 16% of this age group.
3 impacts of workforce ageism
There are many implications of ageist recruitment, retention, and training policies within organisations. Organisations that practice ageism are missing out on:
- Enhanced knowledge transfer. Older people have skills and experience that are relevant – even in an increasingly digital environment. For example, communication abilities that can encompass conflict resolution; basic workplace etiquette; and, business networks that have been developed and acquired over many years. The movie ‘The Intern’ is a classic reminder of the value older people can bring to a workplace.
- Quality customer service. A contact centre comprising only of young people will typically have stereotypical views of older people. This gap between internal staff knowledge and insights about older people and the customer can and does impact customer experience. This was beautifully demonstrated by Judy Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
- Optimised product & service innovation and design. When there’s a poor representation of older people in an organisation there’s a risk that products or services are either:
- Not designed for older people; or
- Innovation is restricted by ageist perceptions, as is the case with the latest release of the Apple watch.
Longer lives are a gift. Addressing ageism in the workplace is overdue. However, with leadership commitment and perhaps a selfish motivation to change the situation for ourselves, a workforce without ageism is possible.