Diversity: Is ageism the last taboo?

In a society that worships youth, older workers are often unfairly overlooked. But as we live longer, it's time for recruiters and employers to think again.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2017

At 50 years old, Dan Lyons was unceremoniously dumped from his position as Newsweek's tech editor. Unfazed, he decided to cross the aisle - instead of covering exciting start-ups, he'd join one, becoming 'marketing fellow' at Boston-based HubSpot. He didn't even notice the prejudice, at first.

'Our CEO gave an interview to The New York Times and said that he intentionally tried to hire millennials, because "in tech, grey hair and experience are really overrated". Until that point I hadn't realised that people around me assumed I was incompetent or not to be taken seriously, just because of my age,' says Lyons, who wrote the book Disrupted about his time at HubSpot. 'My experience wasn't viewed as a positive, but rather as a hindrance. It actually counted against me.'

Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising - after all, the young have always underestimated the old, seemingly unconcerned that one day the roles will be reversed. What makes ageism the strangest of all prejudices is that older people appear to discriminate against themselves. Those aged between 40 and 65 hold almost all the power in corporations, politics and the public sector, yet this generation simultaneously gets short shrift in the recruitment market, passed by for promotion, and pushed to the front of the redundancy queue.

There are an estimated one million British people aged between 50 and 64 who are 'involuntarily workless', according to Business in the Community (BITC). Older people also tend to be out of work for longer, with a quarter of men and a third of women who reach state retirement age having been unemployed for five years or more.

B&Q is one of the few examples of businesses that have successfully pursued older workers. Getty Images

It can happen to the best of us, as former City worker Steve Anderson found out. After 20 years in finance, he quit to look after his wife when she got cancer, finding an unexpected new vocation in the non-profit sector. Then, at 50, with the illness returning, they moved to be closer to her parents in Somerset.

'I moved down thinking I'd find a job like I'd normally done, through networking, through what I'd done on my CV, but it was just so difficult to get a foot in the door, or even get any kind of response. After a lot of soul-searching, I started asking around and found that it wasn't just me,' says Anderson.

He decided to speak to some of his former contacts at one of the firms he'd applied to. 'They just didn't know what was going on or understand the effect of the processes they had in place,' says Anderson, who set up social enterprise Prime Candidate in 2015 to bridge the gap between older workers and talent-hungry employers, a gap for which he largely blames the recruitment industry. 'People are just being screened out, long before the organisation gets a chance to consider them.'

We all know the benefits of diversity. Well managed, it results in better ideas and less risk of dreaded groupthink. Consumer-facing firms benefit from having employees resemble the breadth of their customer-base, while all businesses benefit from employees believing they're valued and treated fairly. So why is age diversity so far behind gender or race on the boardroom agenda? Could it be that ageism just isn't sexy enough, the diversity and inclusion equivalent of data protection or cash flow management, definitely in the boring but important camp?

'When I went to larger organisations, almost without exception, they said this is not part of our strategy right now. It's in our policy, but we're looking at gender balance, BAME or LGBT. I think it's because there's been a lot of promotion and, for want of a better word, marketing about those other issues in recent times,' says Anderson.

In truth, a lot of people might struggle to muster much sympathy for baby boomers, a generation that has benefited from unprecedented growth, opportunities and social mobility, and which caught the wave of house-price growth that's now crashing over the heads of millennials. Perhaps that makes it a hard sell. But it's in everyone's interest that age stops being a weight around our necks.

This problem is going to get worse

Consider this. There are currently 11.5 million people aged over 65 in the UK, some 18% of the population. Forty years ago it was 14%; in 40 years' time, it's predicted to be 25%. The life expectancy of a child born today in this country is predicted to be around 100.

If job opportunities disappear at 65 (let alone 50), then we're faced with a future where every single person of working age effectively has to support either a child or a pensioner. Unless something changes, this dependency ratio means crippling taxes for workers and businesses, and decades of poverty for almost everyone in old age. At the same time, businesses will face a painfully widening skills gap, as millions more talented, experienced people leave the workforce every year than join it.

For London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, it's a no-brainer. Not only will we need to work longer (sorry to break it to you, but we're talking 75-80 years old here, not 68) in order to support ourselves, but the old three-stage life - education, then work, then retirement - has also got to go.

'It's designed for a completely different set of criteria, for people to retire at 60 and die at 75, but when they're living to 100 obviously everything gets pulled out of shape,' Gratton says. Instead, what she predicts with Andrew Scott in The 100-Year Life is that we will develop a multi-stage life, with periods of exploration, self-employment, entrepreneurship and portfolio work alongside stretches where you push your career at organisations. 'Very few people could work from 21 to 80 non-stop. It's just an impossible thing,' she explains.

Gratton's vision of the multi-stage life presents longevity as an opportunity for individuals to try different things and for organisations to tap into their wealth of experience. But it will only work if older people are fully included.

That will involve more than just age-blind recruitment. Diversity and inclusion is just as much about retention, in this case matching older talent with fulfilling roles that make use of their skills and experience. Unfortunately, even in employment, older workers struggle to get equal treatment.

What businesses can do

Employers tend to invest less in their training and development - either because they assume they'll retire soon or because they assume they just don't need it, with only 11% of over 60s receiving in-work training last year compared to 27-30% of under 50s, according to BITC.

Flexibility is another essential ingredient in keeping multiple generations in productive work. 'When we're living longer, it could be that we have caring responsibilities for elderly parents or relatives who are also living longer,' explains Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at HR professional body the CIPD. Indeed, a desire for flexibility could be one reason why as many as 9% of over-50s are now self-employed or business owners, according to research by Hitachi Capital and CEBR.

To retain their older workers who might be thinking of going it alone, businesses will need to do more than just embrace flexible working practices, they'll also need to be more flexible themselves when it comes to retirement. As it stands, retirement is a conveyor belt, leading off a cliff. In the fog. No wonder so many people pop their clogs six months after leaving - for many of us, work means purpose, community, camaraderie.

Indeed, it's a rather big assumption that people in their 50s and 60s even want to retire soon, now that there's no longer a mandatory retirement age. 'Research by Ashridge found that HR departments are more likely to focus on "retirement planning", but that most over 50s themselves are just as interested in planning for their career and in taking a sideways career move. What they wanted was the opportunity and the training to support that change,' says Rachael Saunders, Age at Work director at BITC. It's little surprise that older people drop out the workforce unnecessarily early, taking all their experience and skills with them, if they never get to have these conversations with their managers.

There has been progress, most famously B&Q and McDonald's with their very successful policies of hiring older workers into front-line teams, or BMW with its factory in Bavaria designed specifically for an over-50s labour force.

Take a look at the Barclays website for its apprenticeship programme, meanwhile, and you'll find six smiling faces, three under 30, three over 50. 'When it comes to your potential, age just isn't a factor for us. There's no upper limit on any of our opportunities, whether you're 55 or 85,' the bank proclaims. Since September 2015, Barclays has recruited 89 of these no-upper-age-limit 'Bolder Apprentices'. It's also signed up to Prime Candidate's best practice Champions Charter, which Anderson hopes will enshrine best practice across the corporate landscape.

All this is well and good, but there'll need to be a lot more like that if we're to meet the target of 1 million older workers hired by 2022, set by the government's business champion for older workers (and Aviva CEO) Andy Briggs. No one I spoke to felt progress had been anything like far enough.

The reason, perhaps, is that the battle for inclusivity cannot be won merely by translating good intentions into better HR processes. Important though that is, the biggest change we will need to make if we're to fully involve older people and indeed all people is to our beliefs.

Time to stop worshipping youth?

We live in a society that glamorises youth. On television, in shop windows and across the internet we're bombarded by the notion that only the young are truly alive: it's all beaches and Bacardi, partying till sunrise and falling in love with people who look suspiciously like underwear models. What's the equivalent for older people? Alan Titchmarsh and Brexit. It's not exactly YOLO (you only live once, for those who aren't down with the kids), is it?

This applies in business too. Silicon Valley has popularised the idea that youth means creativity, energy and enthusiasm, the ability to imagine a new and better future. The implication is that old people are none of those things - rigid fuddy-duddies who live in the past and type with one finger. 'Young people,' proclaimed entrepreneur and grey T-shirt aficionado par excellence Mark Zuckerberg in 2007, 'are just smarter'.

(If you think this doesn't affect you, think again. You don't actually have to be that old to be the victim of such prejudices. Speaking about the age when discrimination seems to kick in, Anderson was quick off the mark. 'Forty-three. Our research found the bias really comes in the early 40s. That's the time when the recruitment industry starts seeing you as baggage.' By the time you've reached 65, Anderson says, your opportunities are 'almost nil'.)

Such biases go deep. The story of intergenerational conflict, the new replacing the old - implicitly because it's better - has been a recurring theme in literature since the legend of Zeus and Kronos was first recanted around an ancient Greek campfire.

Even the word 'old' itself betrays our biases, carrying such negative connotations about a supposed lack of effectiveness, flexibility and adaptability that prominent gerontologist Sarah Harper recently advised we stop using it altogether for people who aren't on the brink of death, the so called fourth age. Old computers don't work, old habits die hard and, of course, old dogs can't learn new tricks.

Except actually they can. 'People used to think that a brain's plasticity was fixed throughout life, but we now know that the brain remains malleable well into adulthood,' says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. 'The more you look after it and stimulate it, the better it will perform and the more flexible it will remain. The latest evidence shows that lifestyle changes such as sleep quality, brain-boosting foods, hydration, exercise you enjoy and sharing humour lead to more successful ageing if embarked upon by 36 to 43 years of age.'

Neuroplasticity has another role to play in the fight against ageism, beyond proving it unjustified: in the very brains of the ageists themselves. While biases run deep, as a basic evolutionary mechanism to protect us from people who are different from us, they are not hardwired and can be changed, Swart says, by spending stimulating time with people who aren't like us. Go figure.

Unfortunately, ageist views are unlikely to go anywhere fast. Individual and cultural biases are about as easy to shift as a black mould patch on your bathroom wall. Just look at gender inequality - everyone seems to agree it's wrong, yet somehow it's still there, year after year.

An over-60s senior manager MT spoke with said that, although he believed he had himself been on the receiving end of age discrimination, he would still hire younger candidates over older candidates because 'they've got more energy, more enthusiasm - they're more malleable, less likely to look back to the past all the time'.

You know you've got a long way to go when even the victims of prejudice believe it's justified. When combating that view, you have to be ruthlessly honest. Youth is almost certainly correlated with energy and adaptability - your average nine-year-old is full of beans and primed for learning, far more so than your average 90-year-old. But that's the whole problem with prejudice, isn't it? It's making assumptions about individuals based on your perceptions of a group average. It's lazy and it's bad for everyone.

Yet there is cause for hope. Gratton believes that as we move away from a three-stage life, we will inevitably divorce 'age from stage'. It will no longer be a given, when we change careers three or four times in our lives, that seniority of age means seniority of rank - if indeed rank has much meaning in the flatter organisations of the future. This opens up the possibility that the generations will be less segregated than ever before, which would do more than any hard data or snake-oil moisturiser could to break down stereotypes and keep mature people youthful, or 'juvenescent' as psychologists put it.

Businesses will probably not keep pace with the demographic shifts or the demands of juvenescent workers - they rarely do. But eventually they will have no choice. These changes are happening, and those demands will be made. It is the ones who can see the opportunity in longer life - individuals and organisations - that will make the most of it.

'Baby boomers are used to defining themselves,' cautions Gratton, 'and now they're redefining age. They want to carry on working, holding onto some of their youthful characteristics. My mother would have described herself as old at 62, but I don't. The baby boomers will really fight against being stereotyped. Companies will have to realise this.'


Anyone trying to promote the collective merits of youth and age in the workplace bumps up against the problem of generational stereotypes.

To gen Z-ers and millennials, anyone over the age of 40 is a technologically helpless dinosaur, fit only for pity or contempt (and how did so many of these haggard losers manage to scrape up enough cash to buy a house?).

Whereas to gen X-ers and baby boomers, those irritatingly perky youngsters may be black-belt smartphone ninjas, but they are also needy, narcissistic and very hard work to manage.

Chuck in the trend for identity politics, where we've all got our own virtual tribes of people just like us, and it can make for a pretty divided and ineffective workplace.

One way of bridging this gap is through mentoring, where youngsters are paired with more experienced older colleagues in order to help smooth their rough edges and speed their career progress. But even here stereotypes abound - the original 'Mentor' was the silver-haired adviser to Odysseus's son Telemachus in Homer's Odyssey, and the image of a didactic one-way relationship in which the mentor talks and the mentee listens still prevails.

It shouldn't, says Christopher Tchen, independent consultant with Eden McCallum (and serial mentor) because in the 21st century mentors have at least as much to learn from their mentees as vice-versa. 'Young people have always had things to learn from older people, but there has never been a time when older people have more to learn from younger ones. Knowing what your forefathers knew is no basis for a career today.'

And although tech savvy is part of the picture, the real difference is a state of mind, he adds. 'There's an expectation of immediacy.

If you don't respond quickly you'll miss out. It is interesting to see how younger people answer questions. Whereas in the past it would have been with "I think ..." or "I expect ..." now before you've finished, someone has looked it up.

The bias is for search not reflection.'

That's not to say that the mentees get an entirely raw deal. 'I really get along with Simon, he is nothing like a teacher. His approach is really honest, he says things like "this is the advice I'd give my Nan",' says 23-year-old graphic designer Alex Minney of his mentor Simon Kenwright, founder of Agents of Change, a mentoring programme for creative graduates. Their conversations, Minney adds, can be eclectic. 'Tips and bits of experience - hacks for life. I ask him anything from "This is what I'm really afraid of" to "I always send long and rambling emails, how do I shorten them?"'

For his part Kenwright says that the age differential helps keep his thinking fresh and relevant. But if you want to give it a go yourself, he cautions, remember that the age of deference is long gone. 'Approach it as a relationship of equals. Don't try and play status or ego games, it will just put a barrier between you.'

Photography: Getty Images

Mentoring panel by Andrew Saunders


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