Despite those aged 50 years or over making up an increasingly significant proportion of the UK workforce – making up a third in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – 1.3 million over-50s had been furloughed as of May 2021, that’s more than a quarter of the furloughed population.
Over 55s feel shut out, forced out and overlooked, not only within their current roles, but when looking and applying for work. Our own research found that 24% felt ‘forced to retire’ before they wanted to, and for those in work, a third have lost interest in their job due to lack of development opportunities.
The harsh, but resounding impact on individuals dealing with ageism ranges from severe financial difficulties to a decrease in confidence and poorer mental health.
What’s more, the exclusion of older talent from career progression and available roles is bad for business. Although age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, people over 55 are often disadvantaged by an incorrect, but widely believed, stereotype that everyone wants to retire at age 65 or start ‘slowing down’.
Over 55s feel shut out, forced out and overlooked
Yet, our research found that 56% of employees want to continue working beyond the age of 65. If employers continue to disregard a large proportion of those who are willing to work, they miss out on the experience and skills of older staff and fail to fill available roles, despite rising talent shortfalls.
Unfortunately, societal myths prevail, influencing employers and HR policy makers, with our study finding almost half of employers we asked still encouraging retirement age at 65.
Above all, society’s perception of over 55s needs to catch up with reality. People are living longer, healthier lives – today, your 50s is only the mid-point of life and far away from retirement. HR leaders must act urgently to stamp out ageism, and there are a number of practical steps for leaders and their teams to attract, retain and retrain older talent.
How can HR leaders tackle ageism?
Up the age ante in D&I
First and foremost, age must be thought of as equally important as other D&I initiatives, with HR leaders making a proactive effort to increase age diversity.
When it comes to stamping out conscious or unconscious bias in the hiring process, legal protection for people over 55 can only work to a limited extent.
As an example, when candidates naturally communicate 20 or 30 years’ experience in an industry, conscious or unconscious bias can be seen in hiring managers, making an educated guess at the age of the applicant, despite blind recruiting processes where age or date of birth is removed from CVs.
Treating age as a D&I initiative will help to bring the issue front-of-mind for those leading HR policy and procedure, ensuring it has the same investment – time, thought and money – as race, gender, sexuality and other characteristics.
HR leaders should also consider creating new flexible roles that appeal to the over 55 talent pool
Employers also need to be bias-active by working to understand the level of bias that may already exist in their organisation against age, then delivering training and insight tailored to the business.
Our study found that younger HR decision makers are significantly (39%) less inclined to recruit over-55s compared to their older counterparts, showing that tackling bias is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – you can’t change what isn’t measured, so understanding the current state of play is key before action.
HR leaders should also consider creating new flexible roles that appeal to the over 55 talent pool. While many older workers want to work past 55, our research showed that they value their time outside of work too, either for commitments or lifestyle preferences.
Offering permanent roles at three or four days per week, through to rehiring retired professionals for key periods of the year on flexible contracts, may appeal to and attract over-55s and allow employers access to skilled and experienced workers.
We have to be pragmatic about skills, particularly in the current climate. With increasing talent shortages and many businesses struggling to fill key roles, hiring by looking beyond experience and technical fit to soft skills, behaviour, motivation, and cultural fit, might be a welcome solution.
Attracting the over 55 demographic and diversifying workplace culture may require ‘thinking outside the box’ as to how a greater variety of skills and experience can benefit available roles.
Over 55s can offer a wealth of valuable life experience that could easily translate to an aptitude for client-facing or management roles.
Consider creating new ways of recruiting and assessing applicants that help to encourage inclusivity for all.
The will to skill
Skills and development shouldn’t be exclusive to younger talent, but that is sadly often the case. Employers that invest in technical training and reskilling of the over-55s, both current and new employees, will help to recruit and importantly, retain them.
Employers and HR leaders could investigate if they can create schemes targeting this age group or hiring cohorts of over 55s for in-demand roles that require technical or industry training.
Engage the age
Nobody knows what over 55s want better than the people themselves. Be proactive in asking your existing older workforce what they want and how you can best support them to remain engaged in work for longer.
With a widespread talent shortage impacting many industries, it makes little sense that employers continue to shut out and overlook a third of the UK’s pool of able workers. Furthermore, not solving the ageism problem, and, worse, allowing it to grow, could have seismic short, medium and long-term impacts on the UK’s economy.
Stamping out ageism is more than an ethical issue – with an ageing population, the future of business rests on HR leaders seeing beyond a number and recognising the potential of the largely untapped over 55s talent pool.