In under two years over a third of UK workers will be over 50 years old. Based on current plans, they will still be 18 years away from receiving their state pension. Our population is ageing and our working lives are lengthening. This is not a revelation, but it is likely to mean a rise in work-related ageism.

Ageing positively

A recent report published by the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) in partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation found a rise in ageist attitudes. The report cites a number of studies that found the way we perceive ageing can have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing.  In one study those who viewed getting older positively lived, on an average 7.5 years longer than those who worried about ageing. In another, attitudes to ageing could impact on likelihood of developing dementia or the speed of recovery after cardiovascular problems.

In the context of these studies, it is worrying that three quarters of the 2000 people surveyed by the RSPH perceive ageing negatively. They expected physical decline to stop them from doing the things they enjoy and believed serious health issues to be an unavoidable part of growing older.

The RSPH argue that these negative attitudes present a real problem for our ageing society. They shape negative ideas about older people and their capability while also threatening our ability to maintain health and wellbeing as we age. Not good news with an ageing population on our hands.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the RSPH said

“With more people reaching older age than ever before, it is crucial to act now to promote positive integration across the generations.”

Ageism in the workplace

A study of over 55’s carried out by Capita Resourcing found 94 per cent of businesses believed that older workers could help bridge skill gaps. Despite this only 23 per cent claimed to be actively recruiting people over the age of 50.

Many over 50’s in work, feel that their age is limiting their career paths. Of the 1,000 people surveyed 17 per cent of those over 50 felt that they had missed out on promotion due to their age and just under a third said they felt side-lined in the workplace.

As the workforce ages and more older workers compete with younger for the same jobs, some argue that ageism, at both ends of the spectrum, is likely to increase.

Age discrimination is illegal under the 2010 Equality Act. An individual cannot be treated differently due to their age. However, it can be very difficult to prove implicit or subconscious bias.

Chris Brooks, Senior Policy Manager at Age UK, said

“Quite often if [people] feel [they’ve] been discriminated against [they] won’t know why – its really difficult for everybody to challenge it…There is a stigma still attached to running these claims… We speak to lots of older people who feel they’ve been discriminated against at work because of their age.”

Recruitment

One of the places that ageism can be seen clearly at work is during the recruitment process. Unconscious and conscious bias against older applicants is commonplace.  Many older people said they were seen as being ‘ too stuck in their ways’ never making it off the starting block.

“..with eyes focused on technology and innovation, few businesses have older workers on their agenda, leading to a huge missed opportunity.” Says Chris Merrick, Director at Capita Resourcing.

Business in the Community (BITC) couldn’t agree more. They state that UK GDP could be boosted by 5% if the employment rate of 50-64 year olds matched that of 35-49 year olds. That’s an injection of around £88 billion into the British economy.

They argue that older workers are an essential resource for businesses across the UK. In 2016, the BITC was tasked by the Government to work with employers to increase the number of workers aged 50-69 by 12% by 2022. This equates to around one million older people across the UK.

Older people are an invaluable source of experience and their more settled stage of life makes for highly focussed, committed and motivated employees. The BITC believes that organisations would  do well to welcome and support them.

Small changes, big returns

It’s not just about making a more welcoming place for older workers. There are compelling examples of small changes to support ageing employees benefitting the entire workforce, overall productively and, essentially, the bottom line.

One commonly cited example is BMW, who recognised the changing physical needs of older, experienced workers. Rather than risk losing these valuable staff members, they implemented seating and better lighting on the production lines and more comfortable rest rooms. In exchange they received a massive boost to productivity, not just that of the older workers, but the younger workers too who also benefitted from the changes.

While there are some age-specific issues to be borne in mind, most considerations required to support an ageing workforce will benefit all age-groups. A well-resourced and thought out health and wellbeing plan is really all that’s necessary.

Good health policies, mental health support, career development plans and flexible working options can make an organisation an attractive choice to the best employees whatever their age.

A diverse workforce has been demonstrated, time and again, to be the basis of many successful businesses the world over.

What is clear is that if we can do away with our negative view of ageing, we will be able to see our ageing workforce not as a challenge to be overcome, but as an opportunity to be harnessed.