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Guest blog: Age inclusion in the workplace

Published on 21 October 2021 10:44 AM

As part of Age Scotland’s objective to support and enable organisations to become more age-inclusive, we work with partners such as University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) to explore research on older workers and ageism in the workplace.

These insights help us to shape our workshops and consultancy work and facilitate topical discussions and information sharing at our Age@Work Employers’ Network.

In the latest of our guest blogs, Dr Belinda Steffan, who is a Research Fellow from University of Edinburgh Business School, outlines below why there is an increased interest in research on older workers and explains the different types of ageism at work.

Workers over 50 - working longer

There is increasing academic and practitioner interest on age inclusion of workers over 50. This is because 1 in 3 workers in Scotland are now over 50 years of age and older workers are the fastest growing sector of the workforce. There are a number of other reasons why research on workers over 50 is so topical:

  • Gender employment gap: 14.5% fewer female workers aged 55-64 years.
  • Gender pay gap: 23% difference between women and men in their 50s.
  • 1 in 4 workers over 50 don’t think that they can do their job when they are 60.
  • Unemployed over 50s are twice as likely as younger workers to become long-term unemployed.

The UK Government’s Extended Working Lives (EWL) Agenda focuses on people working for longer. However, not all older workers want to work for longer, or can work for longer. So, there is a lot of work underway to understand the complexities of later life work and how the EWL Agenda can work for workers, not the other way around.

One of the main factors affecting workers over 50, in particular women, is the increase of the State Pension Age (SPA) from 60 to 67 by 2028 and to 68 by 2034 . The SPA is considered a ‘blunt tool’ for the EWL Agenda, with a clear imperative to better understand the complex range of factors affecting work in later life.

Despite this focus on age and work, ‘ageism’ is one of the last ‘isms’ to be addressed.

Multi-generational workforce

Working together with Age Scotland, the age research team at the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) explore age inclusion in the workplace for all ages.

Our rationale for extending age research beyond workers over 50 includes:

  • There are now 5 generations working together.
  • 83% of organisations reported that a multi-generational workforce is key to business growth BUT 53% did not include age in their diversity and inclusion agenda and policy.
  • Precarious work is more likely to be done by younger workers and older workers, especially relevant to periods of economic recovery.
  • Older workers boost organisational productivity mainly due to factors including skills transfer, so it’s important for generational interactions to build on this to work together, not compete.

Image credit www.getsmarter.com

Ageism at work

While multi-generational work undoubtedly presents opportunities such as knowledge transfer, diversity, different experiences and understanding of work, it can also open the door for ageism at work.

Ageism at work is often reported as ageism acted out by one generation on another generation, based on their generational differences. For example, younger workers thinking that older workers are slower or older workers thinking that younger workers are impatient. These generational differences are fuelled by age-related stereotypes, most of which report inconsistent evidence.

Despite the mixed reporting, age stereotypes fuel ageism at work. In particular, ageism that is felt by an individual can lead to decisions around work based on their feelings of being the victim of ageism. This is called ‘internalised ageism’.

Internalised ageism

Internalised ageism is felt by an individual and then it becomes ‘internalised’ as thoughts and beliefs. These beliefs can erode confidence, affect desire to pursue employment opportunities and influence workplace decisions. An individual’s feelings of ageism can be more powerful than whether ageism actually exists within their workplace.

“One in five workers over 50 believe that people see them as less capable as they get older."

My research into this area, drawing on experiences of Scottish workers, found that ageism that is ‘felt’ and then ‘internalised’ as fact, often goes unreported for the following reasons:

  • Fear of repercussion from management and colleagues.
  • Fear of drawing attention to their age at work.
  • A belief that reporting ageism is futile.

The following quotes from my Scottish research indicate how internalised ageism works. I should note that neither of these participants had experienced overt ageism, it was something that they ‘felt’:

I think people do tend to think that you’ll be forgetful… you’re not as creative, you’re not as flexible. I do think there’s still all those perceptions around older workers… And I can remember having them myself when I was younger… (female, 56, Project Manager)

I imagine you become less attractive to employers, unless you keep your skill set up to date and you can convince them that your energy levels are the same, you’re not allowed to discriminate overtly are you? But I bet you that doesn’t stop it from happening. (female, 55, Director)

I don’t want to work until I’m an aged old lady, and the children are rolling their eyes, this old lady what does she know? (female, 51 Teacher)

…there are so many stereotypes about getting older that I think there probably is a risk that people would assume things like ‘oh well gosh their judgement wasn’t very good on that, maybe they’re losing it a bit’… it could well lead to people making assumptions about how good you are. (male, 55, Director)

Working with employers to promote age inclusion at work

The combined work of UEBS and Age Scotland has identified the need to treat internalised ageism as seriously as ageism that can be seen, heard and explicitly experienced.

Age Scotland draw on our academic work at UEBS to provide training directly to a broad range of organisations throughout Scotland to ensure that internalised ageism is on the age inclusion agenda by giving employees of all ages an effective voice on their experiences of ageism.

For more information on our research on age inclusion, please contact bsteffan@ed.ac.uk. For further detail on how organisations can become more age inclusive, visit www.age.scot/age-inclusive-workplace.  

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