Tapping into an age-diverse talent pool isn’t just an opportunity, but a necessity if organisations are to thrive in the evolving world of work.
The modern workplace is a melting pot of generations, with an increasing number of Australians continuing to work well into their 60s and beyond. There are currently five generations coexisting in the workforce, ranging from the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) to Gen Z (born 1997-2012).
As Australian employers grapple with ongoing talent and skills shortages, it’s all the more important that they curate an age-inclusive workplace that recognises and harnesses the potential in employees of all ages.
A recent AHRI report found that negative attitudes towards older workers are discouraging some employers from taking advantage of the skills and experience this cohort offers.
AHRI’s 2023 Employing and Retaining Older Workers research, conducted in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that only a quarter of the nearly 300 HR professionals surveyed were open to hiring people aged 65 and above “to a large extent”.
While these results are concerning, the research also indicated that some progress has been made in reducing ageism in recruitment.
For example, the number of employers who would place an age limit on candidates has dropped from 52 per cent in 2014 and 27 per cent in 2021, to just 18 per cent in 2023.
According to Alison Hernandez, JAPAC Director at HSM Advisory and ageing workforce specialist, leaders need to build on this trend by weaving age inclusivity more deeply into their diversity and inclusion strategies.
“The UN says the ageing population is one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. And yet, I think employers are only just starting to think about this in an intentional way,” she says.
“I would say that most organisations today endeavour to build a culture of inclusion and belonging. And age is something that unites us all – we’re all growing older. It’s one of those elements of diversity that is [universal]. We’ve all got a role to play in creating a workforce that is age-inclusive.”
In recent years, there has been a notable rise in older workers re-entering the workforce, as highlighted by analysis conducted by KPMG in late 2022.
Its analysis revealed that nearly 38 per cent of the 491,000 individuals who joined the workforce between October 2019 and October 2022 were aged 55 and above. This phenomenon has been dubbed the ‘Great Unretirement’, and has also been observed internationally.
Researchers pointed to factors such as cost-of-living pressures, increased life expectancy and increased access to flexible work as drivers of the trend.
“Traditionally, in the past, we moved through three life stages,” says Hernandez. “We had a period of education, a period of employment, and then we stopped working and headed into retirement. But these traditional life courses are not relevant anymore.
“What has replaced the traditional life course is what we call the ‘multi-stage life’. A multi-stage life is much more personalised and flexible, and it has a number of career breaks and lots of transition points.”
The advent of multi-stage careers means that employers need to approach employment relationships without making assumptions about where an employee is at in their career based on their age, she says.
This is particularly important when it comes to training and development. Leaders shouldn’t assume that investing in upskilling or reskilling an older worker is not worth it, because an employee re-entering the workforce at 55 may yet contribute 15 years or more to an organisation.
Lack of proper training for older workers is a significant issue in many workplaces, as indicated by a 2015 study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.
Researchers conducted an experiment where undergraduate students trained others on a computer task using Google Chat. The age profile of the trainee was manipulated using photos and voice modifying software.
The results demonstrated that stereotypes about older people’s ability to learn new tasks interfered with the training they received. When trainers believed they were teaching an older person, they had lower expectations and provided poorer training than when they thought they were teaching a younger person.
“The multi-stage life is one that requires concentrated, continuous learning and development throughout,” says Hernandez. “We don’t want people to become unskilled or irrelevant over time. So [employers] need to look at the investment made in upskilling and make sure it’s equitable and fair across all ages at all stages.”
“The UN says the ageing population is one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. And yet, I think employers are only just starting to think about this in an intentional way.” – Alison Hernandez, JAPAC Director, HSM Advisory
Busting generational stereotypes
Although some of the HR professionals surveyed by AHRI expressed a reluctance to recruit older workers, most respondents reported no difference between younger and older workers in terms of job performance and concentration.
However, among those respondents who did perceive a difference, a greater proportion said older workers performed better across a number of criteria. For example, over a quarter (27 per cent) ranked the job performance of older workers higher, compared with just five per cent who believe that younger workers perform better.
In particular, older workers were perceived to have better attendance records, a greater ability to cope with stress and more loyalty to their employer. Meanwhile, younger workers were considered more energetic, adaptable to change, ambitious, physically capable and proficient in using technology.
“Stereotypes are cognitive heuristics – shortcuts – that come from socially shared expectations about people from different groups. These tend to be based on social information from our peers, families and the various forms of media,” says Eden King, Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Industrial-Organisational Psychology at Rice University, USA.
“Stereotypes get in the way of accurate decision-making and interpersonal relationships. If we have stereotypes about people based on their age, we may miss out on the opportunity to select, train or promote the most talented workers, and we may miss out on building positive working relationships.”
Rather than relying on age-based stereotypes, it is crucial for employers to recognise that work preferences and capabilities are primarily shaped by individual preferences and experiences.
For example, both a young father and a man in his late 60s may desire flexible working hours to manage family commitments such as child or grandchild care.
“There is no one-size-fits-all. The future of work is hyper-personalised,” says Hernandez. “It’s not about making assumptions based on that traditional life course. It’s about really listening to what’s working for people and what’s not.”
When individuals are pigeonholed based on age-related traits, an us-versus-them mentality can take root, which can corrode trust and impede collaboration.
There are a number of steps leaders can take to combat this, says King.
“Building awareness of misconceptions and biases can help to overcome them. Requiring structured and systematic processes for decision-making, such as structured interviews and behaviourally focused performance management programs, can also help avoid the effects of biases.”
The process of building a truly age-inclusive workforce doesn’t end at the recruitment stage. As well as ensuring that their hiring processes are equitable, employers need to consciously push for greater collaboration and support among employees of different ages.
This could look like two-way mentorship programs, emphasis on shared goals and celebrating the careers of employees of all ages at all levels of the organisation.
“[We have] such a powerful opportunity to showcase talent across the employee life course,” says Hernandez.
“By using storytelling, you can [demonstrate] that you showcase and celebrate both potential and experience. That can be so powerful and can make people realise, ‘They’re talking about me’ or ‘They’re talking about us.’ It brings the story to life in a really inclusive way.”
This article was first published in the August 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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