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Stuart Lewis

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Why age diversity is important for business

Our workforce is ageing, so it's time companies embraced a more age diverse workforce.

The population of most developed nations is ageing, yet few people are aware of the scale of change and the impact this will have on the workforce of the future. ONS population projections show that 90% of the growth in the UK population over the next decade will come from those aged over 50, with the number of over 50s set to grow by 2.4 million by 2030.

The real benefit of age diversity comes from the mix – with both younger and older employees working together and benefiting from mutual learning, mentoring and sharing of ideas and perspectives.

Equally profound for workforce planning is that the population of 20-49 year olds – a group that typically enjoys employment rates of around 84% – is set to remain broadly flat in the next 10 years, with growth of just 270,000, or 1%. When you think that the employment rate of the over 50s is almost half that of 20-49 year olds, it’s clear to see that the overall UK employment rate is set to decline as a percentage of the total population.

Barring a wholesale replacement of the workforce due to robotics (which I believe is further away than we think), I would argue that what may appear today as a cyclically tight labour market, is in reality a structural change that will only become more extreme in the decades to come.

Why age diversity matters to business

Age diversity will become increasingly important to businesses over the next few years. It will soon become essential business practice to have policies designed to attract, engage with and retain talented workers in their 50s, 60s and beyond, alongside younger workers as part of multigenerational teams. We believe this is important for the following reasons:  

  • Tapping into an incremental talented workforce: employers typically report that older workers are loyal, reliable, committed and conscientious, yet have historically been overlooked in the recruitment process. The first companies to tap into this part of the workforce will have a real advantage in identifying talented and experienced workers from a group that they may not have previously considered.
  • Diversity of thought: a lot has been written about how diverse teams outperform more homogenous groups due to having a wider diversity of thought. The diversity of thought from having 20 year olds, interacting with and working alongside 60 year olds as part of a multi-generational team, can be very powerful. The real benefit of age diversity comes from the mix – with both younger and older employees working together and benefiting from mutual learning, mentoring and sharing of ideas and perspectives.
  • Protecting the business: since the Equality Act 2010, age has been a protected characteristic in the workplace, enshrined in law. Despite this, research from the Centre for Ageing Better in 2018, demonstrated that employee awareness of age as a protected characteristic was only 69%, which was significantly lower than their awareness of other protected characteristics such as disability and gender.
  • Customers want it: today’s over 50s are a powerful consumer base, who want to be reflected in the workforce of the companies that they interact with. McDonalds conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 regular customers from across the country and found that an overwhelming majority (84%) liked to see a mix of ages in the restaurant team and most (60%) expect better service as a result.
  • It’s the right thing to do: speaking from our first-hand experience, workers over 50 have a huge amount to offer and yet face significant subscious bias across recruitment, the workplace and even wider society. Research has shown that workers over 50 are more likely to be in long term unemployment than their younger counterparts, are more likely to be made redundant, and are less likely to receive workplace training, which is a dreadful waste of under-utilised talent.

    There is a certain irony about this subconscious age bias that sits against a backdrop of a society deeply respectful of elders in the workplace when they have followed a linear career path – for example most FTSE 100 CEOs or senior politicians are in their 50s or 60s. When it comes to lower skilled, junior or mid-level positions, however, older workers can often be overlooked. It always strikes me as peculiar that we are perfectly comfortable letting a 60 year old run a whole company, or even the country, but when it comes to ‘simply’ running a department, team or function subconscious bias all too often comes into play.

  • A happier workforce: In 2016 McDonalds also ran an employee survey of 32,000 restaurant staff across 381 restaurants and found that where restaurants have a diverse age range of people working a shift together, employees were up to 10% happier in their jobs and had a more positive outlook towards their employer.

What can employers do to embrace age diversity? 

Most large companies rightly have a diversity and inclusion policy for gender, ethnicity and sexual preference but few are actively considering age diversity in the same way. This needs to be an increasing priority when looking at demographic shifts and structural changes to the labour market.

  • Offer flexible working: many workers in their 50s or 60s have caring responsibilities. They may also have health conditions that warrant extra flexibility. Offering flexible working opportunities suitable for all (not just returning parents for example) can also enable older people to return to the workforce, or stay on longer and delay retirement, which can be beneficial for employers and employees alike.
  • Challenge stereotypes: today’s 50 year olds are fundamentally healthier and more active than previous generations, with the ONS reporting recently that 70 is in fact the new 65. Despite this, outdated stereotypes persist and casual ageism is all too present in both the workplace and wider society. Comments that would rightly be deemed wholly unacceptable when used in the context of gender or ethnicity, are widely used when it comes to age. We encourage employers to start becoming conscious of the language they see used around the business from an age diversity perspective.
  • Attract age diverse candidates: many industries and sectors are under-represented in older age groups. If your recruitment funnel isn’t showing you a broad range of age diverse candidates, then find ways to attract more applications from underserved groups – whether that’s young graduates, or experienced career switchers.
  • Encourage career development at all ages: older workers typically receive less workplace training than their younger counterparts and many tell us that they feel overlooked when it comes to wider learning and development opportunities. With both life expectancy and working life expectancy only increasing, offering career development opportunities for both upwards or lateral opportunities, can be a huge differentiator in attracting and retaining talented older workers.

The opportunity

It is clear that the average age of both society and your customer base is increasing. We have a labour market that is structurally shifting, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier to find talented candidates anytime soon.  Progressive companies that lean into these trends and find ways to embrace age diversity in their own workforce, will be the ones set to thrive over the coming decades of demographic change.

Interested in this topic? Read Inclusion at work: the future is female – and older.

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Stuart Lewis


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