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The benefits of a multigenerational workforce

With the retirement age set to lift, more older workers will want to remain in jobs. HRM looks at the companies where age is not a barrier to success.

When you think of a dynamic employee, a man in his eighties may not be the first person who springs to mind. But that is exactly who Alexandra Tselios has employed. Tselios, the founder and CEO of media company The Big Smoke, hired 81-year-old Roger Pugh as her director of native advertising.

“The value my team brings is of such immense benefit that age doesn’t enter the equation,” says Tselios, who is 35. “Just because Roger’s in his eighties doesn’t mean he can’t relate to younger people or is old in his thinking.” According to Tselios, it’s the opposite. “Employees in their twenties and early thirties say, “I just had lunch with Roger and I learnt this from him, and we’re going to take this approach now. It’s inspiring.”

The labour force participation rate of 55 to 64-year-olds in Australia has leapt from 47 per cent in early 2000 to 67 per cent today, and some, like Pugh, are working well past what is considered to be their prime. In 2016, 13 per cent of 65s and older were working, compared to eight per cent in 2006, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics – and this demographic is projected to increase. With the retirement age set to lift from the current 65½ years to 67 in 2023, it looks as though grey-haired workers are here to stay.  

Ricky Fritsch, Australia’s managing director for job search company Indeed, says diversity tends to focus on gender or race, but age discrimination flies under the radar even though it is the most reported discriminatory behaviour. Despite their experience, capability and expertise, older workers face significant barriers. Indeed’s 2017 survey showed age discrimination made up 27.3 per cent compared to gender (8 percent) and nationality (7.4 per cent).

The Australian Human Rights Commission reports that more than one quarter of Australians aged 50 years and over have experienced some form of age discrimination in the previous two years, and that four in 10 organisations admit they wouldn’t employ someone over 65.

Doctoring the grey

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Jill Healy-Quintard. After her husband was made redundant at 50, she says he experienced significant age discrimination when looking for work. “It took 14 months for my husband to find a job that was similar, but not totally equivalent, to what he held before.” Healy-Quintard was convinced that perceptions of her husband’s age were behind it, so they took matters into their own hands.

“Taking 10 years off his CV and colouring his hair a little changed everything,” she says.

Ageist attitudes tend to be based on stereotypes: the belief that older workers are harder to teach and train, less flexible and more resistant to change. While these are largely inaccurate, they are nonetheless pervasive, says Dr Ruth Williams, a lecturer in ageing at the University of Melbourne and convenor of the Hallmark Ageing Research Initiative.

Williams surveyed 1,000 Australians aged 18 to 70 years on their attitudes to ageing. She found ageist attitudes were most prevalent among the young and in workplaces where older people dominated positions of status and power.

“There was a view that older people have had their turn and need to move on to free up those positions for young, ambitious people.”

Fritsch acknowledges those grievances, but says older workers may actually want to change jobs but often feel they are unable to move because they won’t get employed elsewhere.

He points to big multinational accounting firms in Australia such as KPMG and Ernst & Young, which have partnership agreements containing clauses that mandate partners retire at 58 or 60 unless the CEO makes an exception. In response, head of communications at KPMG Australia Kristin Silva says that although ‘conversations’ with partners commence around the age of 58, they voluntarily retire at different ages. But some industries are worse than others.

“Because the tech industry has traditionally been a young person’s business, you’re considered old at a relatively young age,” says Williams. “I’ve had friends saying at 35 they were considered old to be working in IT.”

Start-ups or creative agencies are rarely populated by anyone over the age of 50, unless they are the founder. Daniel de Lafoix, director of Arcaeon Design Studio, is different. His team of 10 people range in age from 21 to 70-plus.

“We took on our first mature and experienced team member, aged 60, within our first year-and-a-half, and 10 years later he is still with us. We don’t really care, and never have, how old or young a team member is. If they have the ability, the expertise, the willingness to be a part of a team, but still be able to adapt, then we’re more than happy to bring them into the fold,” he says.

Arcaeon uses a range of digital tools and apps. “All of these are easy to use regardless of age, and the older workers have picked up Highrise CRM quite rapidly,” says de Lafoix. “In fact, our 60-something studio manager is now the go-to person for most things Highrise-related.”

De Lafoix believes recruiters should be open to employing experienced industry-veterans for sound business reasons.

“These people can help a business grow,” he says. “They recognise good customer service, know when to defer to a manager or when to take the initiative, and know their limits because they have all these years of work under their belt and are not afraid to communicate that.”

Timeless innovation

It’s not just experience that companies gain from employing older people. Associate Professor Leanne Cutcher’s research at the University of Sydney Business School shows that the most innovative companies are the ones where age isn’t a factor. Cutcher says when older workers get shut out, good ideas don’t get shared.

“You are just going to replicate ideas when you start labelling people as too old or too young for a role. Where that is happening, it is stifling knowledge exchange. We have this false idea that only the young can innovate, and our research has found it has big implications for the effectiveness of an organisations.”

Mind your language

Bias often begins during a recruitment process. Look at the language found on job site which is typical of many other sites. Workplaces are often described as ‘young and dynamic’ or jobs are ‘fast-paced’. The implication is that old fogeys need not apply.

One way for HR to drive change is to insist on age-inclusive language and examine company practices that appeal only to young people. Company culture and benefits should cater for everyone, says Fritsch.

“While younger workers may rank volunteer programs as an important company attribute, older workers may prefer flexible work arrangements,” says Fritsch. “Some workers are not thinking about day care, but about care for elderly parents. It’s important to ensure that your company’s benefits are attractive to workers of all ages.”

Research also shows that the more employees mingle with a wide cross-section of people, the less likely they are to be biased.

“A good idea is to pair up young and older people in a reverse mentoring scheme,” suggests Williams. Fritsch adds: “A tech-savvy, young worker could help an older worker with technology, while an older worker could share knowledge on social skills or negotiation, for example, as well as sharing their networks.”

It’s also wrong to assume that training is only for younger employees. Williams believes older workers need to be able to access the same opportunities as their younger colleagues.

“We can’t assume anymore that people who are 55 or 60 are going to retire within five years. They still need to see that their career is something the business believes is ongoing.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 edition of HRM magazine.

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Paul Nederlof
Paul Nederlof

I think ageism is particularly bad in Australia compared to other countries. We have an inherent obsession with youth.

Paul Ikutegbe
Paul Ikutegbe

This article clearly tackles the question on age. I believe the best approach to take is one which is based on only merits. If the individual has the quality to perform the job well and ticks all the boxes in a recruitment process, age should not be a problem. It is however important for organisations to explore the area of flexible working arrangement for various interest groups within the organisation such as the elderly.

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