Current research suggests around 30% of the UK’s workforce is aged 50 and over, and in 2016 the Office for National Statistics discovered that 18% of the UK’s population is over 65-years-old. Yet only 33% of employers surveyed by the Centre of Ageing Better said they were looking into how to effectively manage this increase age diversity. And with 24% of the employers admitting they aren’t ready to support the growing number of older workers, this is a clearly a topic which needs to be discussed.
The current situation
The Centre for Ageing Better has reported 12% of older employees have felt uncomfortable working under younger managers and carrying out their instructions, but the reverse is also true with 10% finding it awkward at times to have a more senior role to older colleagues.
In addition to the statistics above, only 20% of employers told the Centre that they are currently discussing the issue.
NHS trade union survey investigated the situation more from the employee’s perspective, with over 80% admitting they are worried about the impact on their physical and mental health and 75% are worried they will be unable to continue working at the same pace. Less than half believe that their employers value older members of staff, a shocking result, but one which seems to fit the trend of hiring younger candidates, linking their younger age to innovation and diversity.
Furthermore, certain demographics are struggling to make headway in entering particular industries, such as digital and technological ones, as being from an older generation is seen as a negative.
Of course, there are issues with becoming older. Some employees need to change their roles, their hours, their responsibilities. Their abilities may change due ill health or the general wear and tear of age. None of these, however, should mean that an employee or candidate is seen as lacking or unfit to work.
What can we do about it?
The first step is to work towards changing perceptions. Getting older doesn’t mean becoming incompetent or redundant. An older employee is likely to have years of experience behind them, valuable experience and insights which can support other members of staff, particularly those new to the role, industry, company, etc. The over 50s are also more likely to have a more pragmatic and practical mindset, which can help bring new ideas and perspectives to the table, as well as supporting problem-solving tactics and new initiatives with their knowledge and experience. Such experience will be essential in certain critical roles and industries.
Therefore, employers need to work towards a more blended and cooperative workforce. As perceptions change and workers are more used to working as a team full of different ages and backgrounds, then working under someone younger or being in charge of older colleagues, will be less awkward and challenging.
They also need to communicate better. If a discussion about an ageing workforce is to take place then older workforce need to be involved. They need to be heard. The majority still want to work and feel valued and employers and managers need to be more accepting of the changes age brings. If an employee suffered an accident or a stroke, support would be given. The same needs to be the case for an employee wanting to continue working until or past retirement age.
Employers and managers need to support their older employees with upskilling opportunities, supporting them through alternative roles, capacities and hours if necessary. Adding stair lifts and such facilities will assist not only the older employee, but also those with complex needs with accessing their workplace and job role more effectively.
The Centre for Ageing Better found that investing in support systems for managing this age diversity in order to keep more over 50s in ‘good employment’ for longer could boost our economy by £3bn. Not to mention that with training and effective provision of support strategies, many of these over 50s could in fact fill our management deficit, as reported by the Chartered Management Institute and recent government research.
“Employers who help their employees make plans for their future career and retirement at an early stage, including consideration of flexible retirement options, have more success in retaining older workers and enabling them to work effectively” NHS employers.
What does this mean for FE?
In FE, it can be quite common for tutors and assessors to have come from an industry background and to have made the change due to age, health or lifestyle reasons. An increasing ageing population could impact the number of older employees working in, and candidates applying for, roles within the sector. This will have an impact on how we manage diversity as we naturally want to continue providing supportive and sustainable working conditions for all our employees, no matter their age or the role they fill. It does also mean, however, that we will need to continue or more actively seek to employ younger candidates as well, in order to provide a more balanced and diverse pool of talents and expertise within the sector and each service, to better suit and support the needs of the learners.
Managing age diversity will also mean facilitating that diversity within our classrooms, as more and more of the over 40s make the most of upskilling opportunities. Whether they wish to refresh their abilities and skills, learn something new or explore their career options, everyone should be given the aid they need to achieve and reach their potential.
This could mean more accessible facilities, more in-classroom support, more peer-support for tutors, and even a more active Occupational Health, HR, and Learning Support system to ensure all needs are met and no subconscious or conscious discrimination occurs because of age – or any other factor. It could mean offering tutors later deadlines in order to complete training activities, giving them more time to process information and work through tasks. It could be through collaboration activities to blur the generation gap with younger and older employees and students working together, pooling their skills, insights and expertise to be the best they can be.
When it comes to the issue of age diversity, the important thing is to see it is as part of the goal of being diverse and tolerant and full of mutual respect for all, no matter age, background, race, gender, religion, and so on. It is about giving everybody a fair chance and ensuring they have what they need in order to work or learn effectively and successfully.
We all know someone who has struggled to find work because they are automatically dismissed out of hand or passed over for promotion because their age is seen as a detrimental factor – either the employer doesn’t wish to take on board someone who may not be able to do the job for long or may need health support or more sickness cover, or because they won’t be able to learn or adjust to somewhere new or a new role. We all probably know older learners who are struggling to keep up or achieve the same rate of learning, not because they are incapable or not trying, but because it just takes them a little longer and they need a bit more cooperation.
We should all start valuing our older generations more. If they were all to suddenly disappear we would be in a mess, missing all their knowledge, experience, patience, understanding and loyalty. We need to work towards turning workplaces into a community, like we often try to do in our classrooms. It’s well known that if someone feels valued and appreciated, even if they are struggling, they will keep going and try to do their best.
If we give our older employees and learners the same opportunities as our teenagers and school leavers, just think what could be achieved.