Over the past year, I have been part of an incredible research initiative exploring attitudes towards older Australian workers. My time in research has brought to light a very pressing workforce issue that I believe warrants greater attention. And as I begin a new career adventure in consulting next month, I am looking forward to better understanding employer attitudes towards the ageing workforce. Along the way, I also look forward for opportunities to invite conversation with clients and organisational stakeholders regarding this important issue.
The simple fact is that the ageing workforce should be treated as more of an urgent issue than it currently is.
Today’s workforce is increasingly becoming more age-diverse – characterised by a growing proportion of older workers, who also happen to be working longer than ever before. As a result, organisations will have little choice but to put greater effort into recruiting, developing and engaging the older workforce. More than ever, there will be greater demands placed on organisations to more appropriately recognise and address the needs of their older workers. This impending workforce issue that is one that will require a strategic and considered approach. As workforces age around the world, the impact of organisational and HR practices on older worker outcomes should not be understated.
So, in light of my departure from my research role at CWL, I have penned a few short observations from my time in ageing workforce research:
AGE DIVERSITY NEEDS TO BE EMBRACED LIKE OTHER FORMS OF DIVERSITY
“Discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any other aspect of ourselves that we cannot change.”
― Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism
It has been great to see diversity and inclusion become a bigger priority for many organisations in recent years. However, age diversity still receives relatively little attention relative to the other major “isms” (i.e., sexism, racism etc.). This is despite age being a very salient attribute in the workplace that can lead to discriminatory practices and behaviours towards older workers. One only has to look at the recent National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination in 2016 by the Australian Human Rights Commission to see the many pervasive barriers that many older Australians face in gaining and sustaining employment.
Diversity and inclusion must extend to include initiatives that recognise and celebrate the unique contribution of employees of all different age groups. This is particularly critical as our workforce becomes increasingly more intergenerational than ever before. The ability to work together effectively and cohesively will become critical in light of modern workforce challenges.
ORGANISATIONS SHOULD CONSIDER TAILORING HR-POLICIES FOR THEIR MATURE-AGE WORKFORCE
HR policies should be re-designed to better meet the needs of older workers. These include strategies such as: flexible/alternative working arrangements (e.g., reduced workweek, job sharing, working from home, eldercare provisions etc.); training and development (e.g., up-skilling to update current skills or acquire relevant new skills, making adjustments for different learning styles etc.); and adjusting recruitment processes to ensure they are not biased against older job seekers.
Policies designed to be more appealing and accommodating of the mature-age workforce can enhance older worker experience in the workplace, leading to greater engagement and commitment to remain in work. Having practices that are tailored for the differing needs of older workers has also been shown to increase perceived organisational support, which is related to increased job satisfaction and turnover. This is congruent with the bottom-line – when a large proportion of your workforce is older, it pays to develop HR practices that will enhance employee performance and overall well-being.
STEREOTYPES AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT OLDER WORKERS NEED CORRECTING
Stereotypes can lead to a view that older workers are all homogeneous, or ‘similar’ in their characteristics. Common stereotypes about older workers include: a lowered performance output, resistance to change, inflexibility in working styles relative to their peers, and incompetence with new technologies. Yet, much research has shown that these many of these myths are largely unfounded. Despite this, biases and ageist attitudes towards older workers can result in discriminatory behaviours can have a devastating impact across all stages of the employment cycle, from selection, development and promotion decisions, to performance appraisal. Clearly, we need to be able to separate myth from fact, and not allow ourselves to judge others based on stereotypes.
As a first step, organisations should consider employing age-diversity awareness training programs for leaders and managers. It is important to educate and raise awareness about different ways to motivate the older workforce and how to avoid bias in decision making processes. Additionally, it is also important to learn how to give appropriate recognition and feedback. At the individual level, employees should re-frame diversity to include age. Furthermore, they should be encouraged to be conscious of the way biases and stereotypes might affect interactions with team members, clients, customers and other stakeholders.
The ageing research at CWL is still ongoing. You can stay up to date with our findings and other research output produced by the Centre by following us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and/or Twitter. As for me, I aim to continue bringing greater attention to this under-represented workforce issue. The more people I can talk to, professional or otherwise, the more I can make people aware of its importance.
One thing is for sure: if nothing changes, organisations will be at risk of significantly failing to respond to an imminent societal challenge.
Organisations must improve on current practices in order to harness the potential of their older workforce. I look forward to seeing organisations take a more proactive stance in promoting age diversity in their workplaces.