How to get the most from experience

Older workers are more flexible, and stronger, than managers think, reports Philip Schofield
Click to follow
TWENTY YEARS ago almost everyone aged between 50 and 60 was part of the workforce. Now less than two-thirds are working. Yet we have a rapidly ageing population and workforce. What is happening?

In recent years older people have been disproportionately affected by widespread corporate restructuring, delayering and downsizing. Those planning redundancy policies assume that early retirement or "voluntary" redundancy is more acceptable to the workforce as a whole, overlooking the fact that older workers displaced in this way find it almost impossible to re-enter the labour market. Moreover, many employers have allowed much of their intellectual capital - the company-specific skills and expertise developed over many years - to haemorrhage.

Few employers aim to recruit older workers, and even fewer to provide training and career development opportunities. And yet many reports show that discriminating against people on the basis of age is leading to national skill shortages. Many employers think job applicants too old at 35, so "older workers" may only be a third of the way into their working lives.

Employers justify this prejudice on the grounds that older workers expect higher salaries, don't want training, are slower to learn, and intimidate younger staff in more senior roles who have to manage them.

However, a study by outplacement consultants Sanders and Sidney found that while a third of those aged under 50 expected a salary increase, only 10 per cent of over 50s did so. Research also shows that older workers are keen to update their skills, but that the approach used by trainers often makes them feel inadequate. Yet the Open University proves that some people in their 80s are capable of graduate level studies. It is also worth noting that 15 per cent of those studying for an MBA, one of the toughest business qualifications, are over 40. And the problem of "intimidated" young managers suggests inadequate management training.

It is not just at the recruitment stage that employers discriminate against older people. Many who have yet to reach mid-career are passed over for further training, career development and promotion. Yet employers claim to accept the need for lifelong learning. Who are they kidding?

A minority of employers have taken action by encouraging line managers to raise their maximum recruitment ages and target older workers, usually in response to a labour shortage. But most of these jobs are low skilled, often part-time, low paid and have little security. Moreover, once older workers have gone through their induction training, there is little evidence that they get any more training.

For years there have been calls for legislation to ban age discrimination. People cite the US, Canada and France which have such legislation in place. However both the 90,000 member Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) and the Government would prefer a voluntary code of practice.

The Government intends to launch a voluntary code, but it has not ruled out legislation if that fails. This seems sensible. However, it will be even more difficult to prove discrimination on the grounds of age than it is on the grounds of sex and race. A law which can't be enforced consistently tends to be bad law.

In either case, entrenched attitudes will be hard to change. The IPD has argued against age discrimination for many years. But its journal, People Management, only stopped taking job advertisements which specified age limits in 1996.

Some time ago the IPD surveyed 1,140 of its members to look at the age stereotypes they held. It looked at three aspects - work effectiveness, adaptability and physical strength. Work effectiveness covered greater experience, loyalty, reliability, thoughtfulness, interpersonal skills, conscientiousness, being effective in the job, confidence, working hard, and working well in teams. Adaptability covered acceptance of new technology, adaptability to change, speed of learning, ability to grasp new ideas, and interest in training.

The survey found that its members generally see older workers as more effective but less adaptable than younger ones. But, young managers view older staff less favourably in terms of both effectiveness and adaptability. One implication of this is that as the average age of employers' management teams falls attitudes to older staff become even more negative.

The IPD said nothing on physical strength. Even here "common sense" assumptions can be wrong. The writer once worked for a quarry employing three-man gangs to break large blocks of rock with sledgehammers and hand load the pieces into tubs. Some gangs were of muscular young men, others of men mostly in their fifties and sixties. The young gangs each averaged 70 to 80 tons a day, the older ones 85 to 100. The greater stamina of the older workers more than made up for the lost muscle power.

In a study on ageism, Eden Brown Recruitment says that discrimination can affect skill supply, market success and so profits. "The increasing age of the working population, coupled with the increasing age of the general population, means that organisations which fail to tackle age discrimination will be at a distinct disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of talented, valuable employees. It will be increasingly difficult to target and influence the burgeoning grey market if the people managing sales are a couple of generations removed."

The fact that discrimination can affect the bottom line might prove to be the argument which finally persuades organisations to make more intelligent use of older workers.