Are firms forgetting about age in their DEI strategies?

Attitudes are improving around race and sexuality, but less so around age

From the alienating language of job postings to large numbers not being able to return to work since COVID-19, there’s plenty of evidence that firms are neglecting older workers.

With a digital skills shortage on the horizon, employers justifiably want to hire talent with technical skills to meet these demands and are emphasising terms such as ‘digital native’ and ‘agile’ in their job postings to attract this kind of talent. But could this be putting older workers off applying to roles and contributing to a lack of age diversity in workplaces?

Poor age diversity isn’t just bad for a company’s inclusive reputation; it also spells bad news for business performance. Firms can benefit greatly from the different perspectives and experiences that older workers possess from a longer employment history. In short, industry skills you can pick up relatively quickly, varied and long-term experience? Less so.

While many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, older workers were less likely than others to find another position.

According to the Centre for Ageing Better, the over-50s were half as likely as younger employees to find another job during COVID-19. Furthermore, 50 to 64-year olds who are no longer looking for work have reached 228,000. Does this prove that age discrimination is why more older workers have given up on their careers altogether?

For many businesses, survival is defined by cost-cutting. During COVID-19, the culling of older workers on higher salaries to retain junior employees on lower pay could have been such a measure. This might even explain recent ONS data, which found that “people aged over 50 years have seen an increasing trend in economic inactivity throughout the pandemic, the only age group to do so.”

By discrediting older workers, whether due to a perceived lack of in-demand skills or their expense, employers ignore a vital protected characteristic in the diversity, equity and inclusion umbrella, namely age.

While workplace equity is increasingly being discussed in workplaces, with large employers in the UK now legally obliged to publish their gender pay gap figures and conversations growing regarding ethnicity and disability pay gaps, little is being said about age pay gaps.

Forgetting that older workers are an underrepresented workplace group vulnerable to discrimination is one of the most dangerous things businesses can do today, especially in an age where they are increasingly being pressured to show transparency on all things DEI.

Furthermore, while certain biases such as LGBTQ+ and racial biases are improving, negative sentiments around ageing are more pervasive, along with stereotypes around disability and size, say two Harvard psychologists, Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji, who believe it will take two more decades to reach neutrality for anti-gay bias. Still, it will take 150 years to combat ageism based on current trends.

But why are older workers less identifiable as a group deserving of DEI support? Perhaps it’s because older workers, as a cohort, are the most diverse of all workgroups and can encompass every other group within it, such as ethnic minorities, women, and more. Maybe it’s their very diversity that makes older workers as a community less easy to define. But this must stop now if employers want to call themselves inclusive and successful.

Like any workplace group, older workers aren’t a monolith. While some may be upskilled and have a natural interest in new working styles and skillsets, some might not, but they will likely want to try to find employment. In this way, all employers should make their organisations a place of learning, which is good for employee motivation, retention and business success.

Firms can improve age inclusion at the start of the employee lifecycle, namely at the recruitment stages. When it comes to writing job postings, emphasising what a candidate should be able to achieve in a job post, rather than what they already possess, will open up access to a wider and more diverse talent pool regardless of characteristics. This talent pool will also likely have more transferable experience so that employers can pick from the best, not just what’s available according to their restrictive specifications.

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