People are living longer, which means they are also working longer either from choice or necessity. We need new thinking about the contradictions and complexities created by an ageing workforce.
When it comes to dealing with our ageing workforce, there is a paradox.
Let me explain.
Many organisations prefer one-size-fits-all solutions. If employees don’t deviate too far from what’s ‘normal’, then organisations don’t need to cater for strengths and limitations, or accommodate differences. On the other hand, organisations have been implementing initiatives to increase diversity for over thirty years.
There is a paradox between wanting workers to be both similar as well as different.
We experience the same tension as individuals. Our need to ‘fit in’ and belong is strong, but we also want to be special in some way. We modify what we do and say so others won’t reject us. At the same time, we gain a sense of meaning and satisfaction knowing that we have a personal identity which is different to others, and that our contribution to an organisation is unique.
These identity processes are crucial because they are central to our mental health and wellbeing.
This topic was discussed at a recent expert roundtable which was part of the planning phase of Ageing Workforce Ready, a new initiative that I’m leading which aims to protect and promote the mental health and wellbeing of ageing workers in the public transport industry.
As Simon Moss, associate professor at Charles Darwin University, said:
“As soon as you start having programs around aging, you imply that there are differences and that can be very damaging – saying there’s something so unique about older people. On the other hand, wisdom and intuition and experience are quite common in older individuals and organisations aren’t set up very well to embrace that. We’re much more interested in tangible, technological answers rather than that intuitive wisdom that evolves. So in some ways, organisations should be set up to embrace that wisdom that comes with age and makes people feel different and unique.”
I want to apply this paradox to two important themes relevant to an ageing workforce: flexible work and discrimination.
At the moment flexible work is a significant issue for many organisations. Studies have found that many workers prefer flexible work arrangements, and there is evidence for the financial and non-financial benefits of implementing such policies.
Flexibility can provide workers with a greater sense of control over their work, which in turn promotes productivity and wellbeing. However, some supervisors struggle to manage people who have different patterns of work; jobs generally aren’t designed for flexibility and people are concerned they will be disadvantaged if they don’t fit into the accepted ways of working. This is a clear example of diversity being in conflict with what is considered ‘normal’.
The expert panel reflected on the idea of opening up flexible work to all employees. In many ways this would solve the paradox. From an organisational perspective, flexibility would gradually become the norm. Managers would need to build their confidence in managing flexible workers, but all managers would be in that position, not just some of them. Also, it would help to eliminate that sense of being different or disconnected that individuals may feel when asking for flexible work.
Currently some employees are entitled to request flexible work under the Fair Work Act once they have worked with the same employer for more than 12 months.
It’s not hard to see how others could benefit from flexible work. For example, people who want to pursue a passion project that enhances their sense of purpose. It’s also true that a lot of people who are eligible for flexible work nevertheless don’t ask for it. Alysia Blackham, associate professor at the University of Melbourne, talked about these facts:
“Initiatives like flexibility, they benefit all workers. My research is increasingly showing that the challenges that young people face have real echoes with those that older people face. The issues are the same and often the intervention is the same. The issue is getting people to take them up. So if you take the stigma away and you say, “actually flexibility is offered to everyone,” organisations might get better take-up. It’s about the implementation and getting people to acknowledge that they would benefit from these sorts of things. Taking away the age limits might be a good way to get people to start making use of what’s available.”
There are many reasons for fathers and other workers not requesting, or not being granted, flexible work. It is largely left to managerial discretion and so is limited by the extent to which organisations are open to experimenting with new ways of working.
Also, in Australia, our ingrained cultural beliefs can stop people from even asking for flexible work as Annabel Crabb argued in the Quarterly Essay, Men at Work. However, opening up the option to all employees would create a structural and symbolic shift which can ultimately normalise flexible work.
It goes without saying that discrimination is harmful to people’s mental health and can also create performance issues at work. Research has shown that even the anticipation of discrimination is sufficient to cause stress, and discrimination-related stress leads to issues such as anxiety in people of all ages.
Attempts to combat ageism include the ‘old people are better because…’ argument, and ‘employ them or else…’ incentives. However, it is important to address the stereotypes and disadvantages faced by ageing workers without portraying them as superior to younger age cohorts.
Our experts felt it’s not as simple as ‘older is better’. When organisations put in place an ageing specific program, it draws attention to older peoples’ failure to fit in. As Dr Courtney von Hippel, University of Queensland, said:
“A lot of these well-intentioned policies can undermine the people they’re intended to help because of the perceptions it gives their co-workers. For example, the goals of affirmative action or equal opportunity programs are great, but there’s research from 20 or 30 years ago showing varied negative consequences for the beneficiaries of these programs. I would be concerned if an organisation says, “Okay, employees, we’re going to make these concessions for you,” that all they’re doing is fanning the flames. So it needs to be done in a really socially sensitive way.”
The necessity and success of these approaches will no doubt continue to be debated, but the end point needs to be one in which everyone is recognised and respected for the unique contribution they bring.
While the panel didn’t come to definitive answers, they did seem to agree on several useful suggestions:
- Focus on facts about ageing rather than comparisons with other age groups. For example, instead of arguing that older people are wiser and more experienced than those in their twenties, share facts about intelligence. While fluid intelligence starts to decline at relatively young ages, crystallised intelligence increases throughout adult life into our seventies. This increase often offsets the decrease in fluid intelligence.
- Create life-stage interventions rather than age interventions – think about graduate programs, support to people having a child, empty-nesters and people dealing with long-term illnesses. In this context, offering programs to those thinking about retirement, or managing the pressures of caring for elderly parents would be part of a bigger diversity initiative that encompasses all employees rather than one focused on age.
- Bring people of different ages together. Research has shown that interacting with older people helps reduce ageism in younger people. In organisations this can be achieved in multiple ways, including two-way mentoring.
With a bit of luck, being old is something all of us will eventually navigate. Let’s all embrace the diversity paradox now because it’s not “their” issue, it’s everyone’s.
Rachael Palmer is leading the Ageing Workforce Ready (AWR) project, a collaboration between AustralianSuper and Transitioning Well. The project is funded through WorkSafe Victoria’s WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.
Caring for employee wellbeing requires leaders to have strong emotional intelligence skills. AHRI’s short course breaks down the impacts our emotions can have on our work, resilience, influence and relationships.