Unlocking the potential of a diverse and multigenerational workforce critical for the UK’s economic recovery

By: Natasha Oppenheim, No Desire to Retire

There have been a number of recent media reports of older workers – frustrated by the lack of response to their numerous job applications, but equally determined not to be defeated – resorting to some creative approaches to get themselves an interview with prospective employers. One was 63-year old Trevor Walford from Keighley, a former royal butler and cruise restaurant manager, who had been made redundant in March. He hit the headlines – across the world – when he stood on a Leeds train station platform wearing his best suit (and face mask), holding a sign which read: ‘I would like to work, please feel free to take a CV’ and physically handed out copies of his CV. He is now happily working in a managerial and training role in the hospitality sector. A second example is 54 year old Richard Stevens from Hertfordshire who, after 200 failed applications, landed himself a job when he sent an interviewer the recording of a song he’d penned with his 16-year-old son Oscar called ‘Paper Me’, about how people often did not look beyond paper qualifications.

While both these stories are inspirational on one level, sadly, they also underscore the challenges that older workers face in their job search – potentially more so at the moment with the current focus on helping younger people enter the workplace – which is predicted to get a lot worse when the furlough scheme eventually unwinds.

These include:

Ageism

Firstly dealing with ageism, conscious and unconscious: research shows that age bias is now the most prevalent form of workplace discrimination across the UK (and Europe), with 64% of older workers reporting concerns about unfair treatment [1].

Trevor himself said that in phone interviews – after a very positive start to the conversation – ‘the tone of their voice went down’ as soon as his age came up, and he never heard back about his job application. He is not alone – at No Desire To Retire we hear similar stories all-too-often from our 30,000 members, notwithstanding that age discrimination is illegal; (usually younger) recruiters often ask if an older job seeker would be happy working for a younger boss? Or whether they are physically able to do the job, often without having met or asked the applicant – as Richard Stevens’ musical composition highlights.

Sadly, studies around attitudes to age bear this out: Project Implicit [2] by Harvard University finds that 25% of people are very ageist – that’s twice as many compared to other forms of prejudice such as gender, race or sexuality. Predictably, this translates into the workplace environment in various ways, as highlighted by evidence from Anglia Ruskin University [3] showing that older workers are up to four times less likely to be offered a job at interview stage, and once in a role, less likely to receive training opportunities.

Yet, a recent Word Health Organisation (WHO) [4] report states that “age is not a reliable indicator when judging a worker’s potential productivity or employability”[5] and that introducing strategies to combat ageism can increase opportunities for (high-functioning) intergenerational teams. Meanwhile, the OECD [6] has recommended the eventual elimination of all mandatory retirement policies in order to benefit older workers, and accordingly employers and economies.

Indeed, as fellow blogger Andrew J Scott has pointed out in his various books and articles, one of the overwhelming insights from the research on longevity is the malleability of age and the potential this has for enabling people to be economically productive into their seventies and eighties. Yet many people are currently blocked from working longer by a corporate policy of retirement at the age of 65 or 60 or even earlier.

And countless individuals in their 60s and 70s are actively engaged with their careers, and certain to avoid retirement. At 90, Warren Buffett is still regarded as one of the most brilliant brains in the world of finance, and Charlie Munger, his right-hand man, is 96. At 62, Madonna is the undisputed queen of pop. At 82, Jane Fonda is as prolific as ever in her careers as an actress and activist. In addition, the most important job in the US – and often the UK – goes to people who would generally be considered too old to be productive in most offices [7].

Step aside for Generation Alpha

Second is the focus on youth unemployment: the Government has launched its KickStart campaign earlier this year, providing funding to employers hiring 16-24 year olds. But so far there has been no support available for older workers: research by the Centre for Ageing Better and the Learning and Work Institute [8] warns of the risk of a resultant surge in long term unemployment among the over 50s, with experts calling for urgent action from government to ensure older workers are not left behind.

The implicit message is that older workers should make way for young people to avoid a lost generation of unemployed youth; yet the same report from WHO states that mandatory retirement ages do not help create jobs for youth, as was initially envisaged but they do serve to reduce older workers’ ability to contribute and reduce an organisation’s opportunities to benefit from the capability’s and experience of older workers [9].

However, we at No Desire To Retire are not advocates of perpetuating a (destructive) generational ‘turf war’, so beloved of the media; rather, that there is a lot to be gained by the – often 5 – generations working together, cohesively and collaboratively to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts

It shouldn’t be about young or old…it should be about young and old

Indeed, a large number of our members are themselves parents and grandparents, worried about the job prospects of young people, not least their children and grandchildren; but equally they know that they can play a role in supporting the younger generation including mentoring and on the job knowledge transfer – especially with training budgets under pressure.

And they have a lot more to contribute to employers, and as part of a multigenerational workforce: the over 50s represent a huge untapped asset of millions of years’ worth of collective accrued experience and expertise, with an abundance of the skills and qualities organisations need to help them achieve some form of COVID-related economic recovery. Indeed, older employees often demonstrate “crystallised” intelligence — “the information, knowledge, wisdom and strategies that are accumulated over time” [10].

To help weather the inevitably uncertain and challenging times ahead, the UK’s workforce will need attributes such as resilience and adaptability, and people who have the experience to assess a situation quickly and efficiently, and offer effective solutions to meet organisational needs. Someone who has ‘been there, done that’ – problem solved in the face of a crisis – offering a safe pair of hands on the tiller to steady the ship, should be very attractive to employers.

Various studies build out the business case. For example, research by McKinsey [11], Bain & Co [12] and a study by Erik Larson [13] on the pay-offs of a diverse and inclusive workforce, highlight data suggesting a strong correlation with financial (out)performance as a result of their better decision-making, problem-solving and innovation. In general, organisations in the top quartile for gender diversity and ethnic diversity are 25% and 36% (respectively) are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians [14].

Meanwhile, for organisations with a D&I mix which also includes a wide age range (of more than 20 years), the decision-making related performance is further improved: while gender diverse teams made better decisions 73% of the time when compared to single decision makers, when age diversity was included this rose to 80%, rising to 87% for gender-diverse teams that also incorporated different geographic locations/ cultures. Furthermore, multigenerational teams with a wide age range of 25 years or more (from youngest to oldest member), met or exceeded expectations 73% of the time, while those with a narrow range of less ten years did so only 35% of the time [16]. This is corroborated by other studies, which also show that mixed-age teams are more productive than teams of workers all the same age [14&15]; and that, contrary to stereotypes, mature workers have a great capacity to learn new skills, and engage in as much innovative behavior as younger staff [5&18].

Indeed, the consensus among researchers on longevity is that people can remain economically productive into their seventies and eighties. Yet many people are often blocked from working beyond 65 by corporate retirement policies policy, notwithstanding the abolition of the state Default Retirement Age.

There are also associated savings from retaining older workers rather than hiring new talent [16] – including recruitment and training costs, and more generally, mitigating turnover from more job-transient, younger generations [17]; they have also been shown to be more reliable, with lower rates of absenteeism, while also reporting higher levels of job satisfaction and wellbeing, making for happier teams – and a positive work culture [17&18].

Further, the shift to remote working, removing geographic and logistical limitations – while overcoming potential ‘shielding’ issues too – is an advantage for the many older workers no longer wanting to commute, or indeed relocate, or who want more flexible working patterns (many are also unpaid carers, especially members of the ‘sandwich generation’). It is also a bonus for employers who can access a new talent pool and attract candidates regardless of location. Obviously remote working is not possible in all jobs, but where it is this could be a win-win for employers and mature workers.

Your country needs you…

So let’s unite as a country, pooling all our individual and collective talents and skills to create a truly collaborative multigenerational, diverse and flexible UK workforce – fostering the creativity, innovation and productivity needed to ‘restart’ our economy – and getting people of all generations back to work to support themselves, their families, and our society more generally.

References

  1. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/02/08/the-number-of-older-workers-is-increasing-fast-yet-they-face-growing-age-discrimination/
  2. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
  3. https://aru.ac.uk/news/ageism-still-significant-in-uk-labour-market
  4. https://www.who.int/ageing/features/workplace-ageism/en/
  5. See also Sheffield University/WPEG: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.797639!/file/B1_GRAY.pdf
  6. http://www.oecd.org/els/emp/Brochure%20OW%2028-08.pdf https://www.oecd.org/els/emp/33764039.pdf
  7. https://hbr.org/2019/09/the-case-for-hiring-older-workers
  8. https://www.ageing-better.org.uk/news/covid-19-risks-triggering-long-term-unemployment-crisis-older-workers
  9. https://www.who.int/ageing/features/workplace-ageism/en/, ibid; http://crr.bc.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2012/10/wp_2012- 22.pdf;
  10. The New Long Life, Andrew J Scott and Lynda Gratton
  11. Diversity Matters, McKinsey Insights series: ongoing research across 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies
  12. The Decision-Driven Organization, Bain&Co: decision-making effectiveness 95% correlated with financial performance https://www.bain.com/insights/decision-driven-organization/
  13. analysis of c600 business decisions made by 200 different business teams in a wide variety of companies over 2 years https://www.cloverpop.com/blog/new-research-inclusive-decision-making-increases-performance-of-diverse-global-companies
  14. Zwick, Göbel and Fries; Allyson Zimmermann, LSE
  15. e.g. Deloitte: inclusive workforces are 6 times more likely to be innovative and agile https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-22/diversity-and-inclusion-at-work-eight-powerful-truths.html; Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin: leaders with diverse backgrounds and experience helped companies innovate more https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation
  16. ACAS, CIPD
  17. e.g. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/267743/why-millennials-job-hopping.aspx 
  18. e.g: American Journal of Psychology: Understanding the motivational benefits of knowledge transfer for older and younger workers https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-66177-001

Natasha Oppenheim

CEO, No Desire to Retire

No Desire to Retire is dedicated to helping more over 50s find work, providing advice to job seekers and employers on the brilliance of a multigenerational workforce. No Desire To Retire is the UK’s leading advice platform for over 50s jobseekers, offering tips and guidance for those looking to get back to work: https://www.nodesiretoretire.com/. If you are ready to start your job hunt, you can register your CV on their sister site Experients: https://www.experients.co.uk/.