Why we need to stop treating age as a barrier in the workplace

How much are you investing in future staff members? As workplaces begin to stop treating age as a barrier, it may not be enough.

Steve Butler, author of the new book The Midlife Review: A Guide to Work, Wealth and Wellbeing, urges businesses not to treat age as a barrier but embrace the benefits of an older workforce.

Let’s do a spot of time-travelling and look ahead five years. Who are you employing? Picture your team. Now let’s step back to present-day. Where are these people you pictured, at this very moment?

You might be imagining that your employees of 2025 are, right now, heading off to a university lecture, exhausted after pulling an all-nighter because of course your future employees are hard workers. Or maybe they’ve just accepted their first, entry-level job, and are busy learning vital skills so you can scoop them up a couple of years down the line.

I picture things differently, though. I’m pretty sure that my future staff are currently somewhere else entirely. Actually, I’m quite sure that your future staff are in the same place, too. A good proportion of them are working for you already because it’s likely that we are already employing most of our future staff members.

While of course there is natural churn and while of course you will bring some new people on board, many of your current staff are going to stay on with you for the foreseeable future. And if they are now in their late 40s or early 50s, they may yet be with you for decades.

Older workforce on the rise

In the UK, the number of people between the ages of 65 and 69 who are working doubled between 2001 and 2014. As life expectancy rises and pension provision becomes less generous there is a very real prospect of people working for 50 to 60 years. As they get closer to retirement age, they may find it too difficult to switch jobs or simply prefer to wind down a bit, rather than starting somewhere completely new. And with life expectancy rising fast, many of your people may work for you well into their 70s, at least part-time. This begs a crucial question, how much are you investing in these staff members?

Given that they are likely to be a significant part of your future workforce, do they still get the training they need to thrive and do their best work for you, and the help and support to plan the development of their careers or does the majority of that go to millennials and rising stars?

Do you make sure they have the work conditions and support they need to successfully juggle work life and family, especially now that they may be dealing with elderly parents as well as children? Imagine what your workforce will look like in 2025 or 2027, if the answer to these questions is broadly no.


Knowledgeable and experienced

The staff members in this age bracket are likely to be among your most knowledgeable and experienced employees. In many ways, they are or could be at the peak of their capabilities. But some may lose their motivation to work hard, particularly if their careers have stalled.

They may have 20 years of work ahead of them, but they’re not sure anymore whether they’ll get any interesting new opportunities or a chance to switch gears to something new. Others might be desperate to continue working hard, but they’ll struggle because they just cannot handle both their work commitments and the responsibility of ill and elderly parents at least not with their current working arrangements.

Five million people in the UK are juggling caring responsibilities with work, that’s one in seven of the workforce. You’ll see employees who are constantly popping out to take their parents to medical appointments. Their managers might think they are no longer hard workers. Of course, the truth is so much more complicated.

Human potential

Your office may also be full of people in their 50s who are exhausted after 30+ years of work. This could change if only they had a little time and space to refresh themselves and to figure out what next, but they might not have ever been given the opportunity. And they’re not sure how they would afford it either or how to reduce or change their working hours because no one’s ever raised the possibility. They feel held back and trapped, completely unnecessarily. I’m sure that’s not a future you want for your staff or for your company. It would be an enormous waste of human potential and capabilities.

There is a great deal of work to do to address issues in the workplace that are holding some businesses back. This work needs to focus on recruiting and retaining people based on their ability and capabilities, not their age.


Steve Butler is the author of the new book The Midlife Review: A Guide to Work, Wealth and Wellbeing, published by ReThink Press and available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

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