I attended a particularly thought-provoking roundtable hosted by Connex Leadership Networks. I don’t say ‘thought-provoking’ lightly, it really was. It was about tackling ageism in the workplace. Whilst some high-profile media examples have been called out recently, it remains one of the few ‘isms’ that exists as an uncomfortable undertone in the workplace, which hasn’t yet had its #metoo moment.
The speakers included Lyndsey Simpson, a self-declared ‘stato’ and founder of plus +55, who reminded us that children born today will live on average, to 103. Thus, making the 55 plus social housing definition of older persons, appear even more outdated and impractical. Plus, it also signposted that this is a population-wide issue; not something that affects just a few outliers.
Some key takeaways from the session:
This make-up of the attendees was telling: the 20 females to one male, firmly telegraphed that this was an issue likely compounded by gender. Indeed, the recent examples of ageism in the media were exclusively female for instance Lisa LaFlamme, the Canadian reporter, who was fired for allowing her hair to go grey.
We reinforce the stereotypes
The language we use, even in a roundtable concerned with tackling the issue of ageism in the workplace, is sometimes clumsy and unhelpful. We refer to older people in patronising tones –‘ahh, bless them’; we express surprise when they can use technology well – which only serves to reinforce our biases.
What about younger people?
We default to consider ageism through the lens of older people, rather than the so-called ‘unreliable and entitled’ millennials and gen Z who are bashed for their woke-ism. Again, an issue that I dare say is compounded by gender.
In the interim world, grey is good
In fact, one of my rather youthful-looking interims in his mid 40’s, wears glasses to interviews to give himself the veneer of an older, and therefore more credible and experienced solution to tackle business problems. What is it about my world that for the most part, actively embraces some of the positives that come with longer time served in this world and the workplace?
The older edge
We are missing out on a huge opportunity in older people as employees –smart employers would be well versed to ensure their recruitment and inclusion policies explicitly target this pool of usually healthy, curious, motivated, and learned individuals. They are statistically more satisfied with life; and, from the benefit of hindsight, will choose roles or new careers that they are genuinely energised by, good at, and therefore more likely to give their discretionary effort. Older people in the workplace have experienced business rhythms, ridden economic waves, survived and have the scars to prove i.e. have bags of resilience – a quality that all businesses attempt to recruit to and is frustratedly difficult to develop in individuals, other than through time served.
Don’t make assumptions
Older people are 200 times less likely to take sick days off than younger people (thanks again Lynsey!). I increasingly hear the adage that if you want a tech subject matter expert make sure they are under 30; and a finance subject matter expert should be over 30. However, I have countless examples to counter this. Don’t assume older people are too overqualified or costly for junior roles– they can often present incredible value for money: bags of experience available for less, in the form of part-time hours.
Covid changed things for older people
Whilst it labelled our country’s 55-year-plus population as ‘vulnerable’, it did show us that many who have retired still have a huge role to play in society, both in voluntary and paid frontline roles. For some, less commuting and more flexibility afforded by hybrid working, has delayed retirement. I have a greater pool of older and experienced candidates available for senior interim and consultancy roles. For others, it expedited retirement, and it is some of those people that I believe can be lured back into the workplace.
If anything can be taken from these last few weeks, the passing of Queen Elizabeth has shown us that long service needs to be valued, celebrated and made possible. Some individuals will continue to evolve with the workplace, others will provide much-needed stability and valuable lessons from earlier business cycles. Innovation needs pragmatism and vice versa. Just don’t assume which end of the age range is going to give you either!