Gender, ethnicity…age? Why age diversity is the last taboo

Older business man and woman on laptop, supporting older workersSome of the most talented leaders in our company were frustrated. In their late 30s and 40s, they felt they had earned a seat at the top table.

They were right – and they were ready for it. But there were just eight spots on our executive committee, most of which were occupied by equally talented and capable leaders – who were a generation older than them. It didn’t seem fair that they would have to wait for someone to retire, in order for one of those spots to become available. So, I disbanded the executive committee, replacing it with seven operational committees for different areas of the business. That way, we were able to quickly involve more people in our leadership structure, and create a more diverse, multi-generational team at the top.

As the UK workforce ages, you are likely to encounter this kind of dilemma more and more often. Your older employees may to stay on board for longer, well past what was traditionally considered “retirement age”, and into their 70s. Staff in that age group may have very different skills, expectations and interests to your millennial workers, and even those in their 40s. Working together, there may be clashes and tension – not just over leadership positions.

What benefits should you provide? What kinds of working hours are appropriate? What pace of work? What technological skills should be expected? Balancing everyone’s needs can be challenging. There are also opportunities to consider. You need to find ways to help everyone work together in a productive way – and gain the full benefit of a multi-generational workforce. For example, how can you help your older workers transmit the knowledge and experience they have gained over decades to their younger colleagues, and in turn encourage younger colleagues to share their own unique knowledge with older generations? There are no easy answers, but – as my experience with the executive committee shows – the key is to actively manage the issues around an ageing workforce.

The reality is that most companies today are barely thinking about them. Yes, you might officially be committed to age diversity. And perhaps you have official policies around age discrimination. But in many cases, these formal rules often amount to an insurance against litigation, and do not translate into meaningful practices within the organisation. Research suggests that companies that do promote the employment of older workers often limit their recruitment to customer-facing or low-skilled jobs, and that discrimination continues to be widespread. And engagement with the issues around the ageing workforce is often extremely superficial.

For example, even if you have equal opportunity rules in place, has anyone thought about training for your older workers…? Or how to help your managers work with employees in very different age brackets…? Has anyone considered how to build on the strengths of older workers? If the answer to these questions is “no”, it is neither surprising nor unusual. For many companies, this is still a relatively new area. So how can you start preparing your company for the challenges (and benefits!) of an ageing workforce?

  • Start by rolling age into the initiatives you run in any case around diversity.
  • Help your employees understand that there are enormous benefits to working in a multi-generational environment, just as working in a multi-cultural environment helps everyone.
  • Everyone has knowledge to share, with older generations retaining – for example – a lot of institutional and operational knowledge which would otherwise be lost.
  • Create cross-generational mentoring programmes to share that knowledge.
  • Intolerance of ageism should be a given, just like intolerance of sexism and discrimination against minorities is now a norm.
  • Help the generations working together see that they’re dependent on each other’s success.
  • Encourage them to work together in age-diverse projects, so they can develop trust and work together for a common goal. Team-based incentive and reward systems work particularly well.
  • Acknowledge inter-generational tension when it happens, and deal with it. Do not allow conflict to bubble under the surface and fester, because it will affect your work environment.
  • If it seems likely that you will experience an increase in older workers and a decline in younger workers, develop good policy sooner rather than later.

At a minimum, employers should strive to be intolerant of ageism, offer flexible working conditions, consider workers who have also become family carers (sandwich generation), and permit phased retirement. But there may be many other sensible policies to help your workforce. Don’t wait until problems arise. Be proactive about planning, so everybody wins, including your staff – and your company.

Steve ButlerAbout the author

Steve Butler is the author of new book The Midlife Review: A Guide to Work, Wealth and Wellbeing, published by ReThink Press and available in paperback and ebook from amazon.co.uk, priced at £12.99


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