Age: diversity's "forgotten cousin"

Just what do we means by diversity in the workplace? Well, google the term, and you’ll see what it means to most people. Gender, religion, culture, ethnicity … these are the terms that dominate in diversity-speak.  Keep searching and you may stumble upon ‘age’. Fact is, ageism at work continues to be way down the diversity pecking order, when reason tells us it should be near the top.

So why is ageism ‘diversity’s lost cousin’, as Christopher Platts, founder of ThriveMap, describes it?

It may be because employers are unwilling to invest in talent which may not serve them for as long as younger recruits – but that is to ignore both the tendency of all employees to move jobs and the ever-increasing retirement age. It is perhaps more that over 50s are seen as technological luddites and less malleable than younger employees. The latter may be so, but isn’t the ability to challenge an asset in any organisation, especially when in the same breath that organisation is seeking ‘self-starters’ and ‘an ability to work on your own initiative’ in its younger recruits? Consider the wealth of experience, knowledge, maturity, and familiarity of different environments which only older employees enjoy, and you wonder why employers fear them so.

And they do. According to a recent Irish Times article, people’s chances of gaining new employment once they pass 50 are slim. “Many workers have a mandatory retirement age – typically 65 – written into their contracts, but the fact is many employees are living longer, healthier lives than previous generations. Even if they’re willing and able to continue in their role, they’re made to step aside to make way for new blood.”

That same article cites a William Fry report highlighting the negative stereotypes which older applicants face – less tech-savvy, less adaptable, etc, – but at the same time shows that older employees ‘have lower rates of absenteeism and are more committed’.

In the face of the prevailing biases and stereotypes, any HR professional might ask themselves, is there not a competitive advantage to be gained here?

Remember, 50 ain’t that old anymore. Off hand, I can’t think of a 50-year-old who isn’t adept at a computer. Whereas a few decades back a typical quinquagenarian’s CV might have featured just a single employer, their experience of the workplace is often much richer now.

Now let’s stand back a little. Births are dwindling in many Western countries just as older people are living much longer. It’s plain for all to see that we will need to embrace older workers if our economies are to stay in balance:  it will shift from an opportunity we are missing out on to a necessity we have to plan for. Just as the working environment may need to be adapted to cater for gender and ethnic change, so too may we need to rethink things not just to accommodate older employees, but to entice them. It’s coming. Let’s not put it on the long finger.