Age discrimination is illegal. However, anyone over the age of 50 will tell you it happens, particularly in employment markets where changing jobs can be particularly fraught.
There may be real reasons for this. Older people, who may have been in a particular job for some time, can find applying for new posts daunting. They may have less well-presented CVs than someone who is younger and more used to applying for work. Online networks, now commonly used by employers when searching for candidates, may seem baffling to later-lifers. They may simply not be aware of them at all.
These discrepancies matter. Work will form a large part of life for seniors who wish to live on more than just the basic state pension.
The positive side to this equation is that, with an ageing population and skills in shorter supply, older workers will need to be looked at by employers much more positively. Quite a large number of major employers, such as some of the big supermarket chains, now have ‘age positive’ employment practices and actively seek to recruit older people. Older people typically show great customer service skills, for example, having been customers for decades themselves. The growing recognition of the benefits of diversity across all population groups has increasingly included age diversity. An employer I spoke to recently acknowledged its workforce was too young. It is now actively implementing an age diversity recruitment policy.
Person, not policy
I found the employer’s approach slightly strange. I would start from the point of recruiting openly according to business need, and the ability and attitude of the candidate, rather than a diversity policy. The same employer was also targeting returning mothers. All of this is very laudable, but it feels like almost a reverse form of discrimination. Or am I being oversensitive?
Seniors have a lot to offer in the workplace without age-positive employment policies. Through their vast wealth of experience, they can rapidly form good judgements on problems and challenges that arise at work. Their contact networks in their chosen profession can open doors that might well be closed to younger staff. They can fix things with a few well-chosen phone calls, which would take younger people hours or days to sort out. They come with a natural authority and presence that can make them ideal ambassadors for an organisation. We can see this in some of the supermarket chains where elders are used in front of house roles. They can, when used in the right way, be a major asset to any business.
Work that fits them
That last phrase is key. The evidence base suggests as people age, the way they want to work changes. Seniors will typically have commitments to family members that younger people experience less, such as caring for elderly loved ones or grandchildren. They may want to work, with all the financial, social and health benefits that flow from that. But they will have other priorities that may be more important to them.
Any work they do needs to fit around that, rather than the typical nine-to-five working day, five days a week. They usually need to work flexibly, with hours that suit them, and with periods of absence. In many cases, self-employment or even zero-hour contracts actually suit seniors better.
Policymakers are aware that, in decades to come, private pension provision will continue to decline. Prospective retirees are well aware of this, too. We need to ensure older people get the chances of work they need. Demography means the playing field is, at last, tilting in their favour.
Malcolm Small is a special adviser at Copia Capital Management