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Older worker in supermarket on the till

Don’t be scared bosses: older people are changing workplaces for the better

Workplaces might be changing with the addition of millennials, but we shouldn't be ignoring the older workers who are already there.

An article in the Evening Standard points to millennials changing hearts and minds at work – but what about older workers?

A young woman brings her performance review to a halt with: “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel safe in this conversation”.

Though this sounds scarcely believable to my ears, according to Rohan Silva in a recent Evening Standard article (“Don’t be scared bosses, millennials are changing workplaces for the better”), it represents how millennials are bringing the language and attitudes of the university campus to the workplace.

The opening quote itself is mind-boggling enough, but it was Silva’s assertion that millennials are changing the workplace through “sheer weight of numbers” that gave me pause.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that, in the period September to November 2018, there were just over 11 million millennials (roughly those aged 18 to 34) and 10.3 million people aged 50 and over in the workforce. So almost the same number of millennials as people over 50 and over. And it’s the latter group that’s growing fastest. By 2025, there will be one million more people aged 50 and over and 300,000 fewer people 30 and under in the workplace. By 2025, one in three of the working age population will be aged 50 and over.

How can it be that millennials are a force to be reckoned with through sheer weight of numbers but not the equally large population of older workers?

We are failing to support older workers

Workplaces might be changing with the addition of millennials, but when it comes to the older workers who are already there, many are struggling to manage.

Last year, we published Health warning for employers, which found that one quarter of people aged 55 and over who are managing a health condition and are still in work are considering leaving because of their health, or more accurately, because of the challenges of doing their jobs given their health.

Similarly, Carers UK have recently revealed that 2.6 million people have had to quit their jobs to care for a loved one who is older, disabled or seriously ill, nearly half a million of these just in the last two years. Insurance provider LV= has also highlighted the challenges faced by ‘sandwich carers’.

And a plethora of myths persists about older workers, like the fact they are slower and less productive; are too set in their ways and unable to adapt to change; or that they struggle with technology. Though none of these has any basis in fact, they can mean that older workers aren’t given the same opportunities for development and training as younger colleagues.

By 2025, one in three of the working age population will be aged 50 and over.
Employers can become more age-friendly

We’re calling for age-friendly workplaces, where older people get the opportunities afforded everyone else and that provide flexibility and the adjustments they need to accommodate health conditions and caring responsibilities. Employers need to do more to improve how they recruit, support and train older workers. This is essential if older workers are to be supported to stay in work, which from an economic point of view is important for all of us, including millennials.

Perhaps ironically, the supportive and empathetic workplace that we want for older employees is likely to suit millennials as much as anyone.

And let’s not forget the benefits of an age-diverse team. When asked, employers say the things they value about older workers include experience, knowledge, loyalty, confidence and reliability. The Standard article concludes by noting that the manager who had the performance review cut short took a hard look at himself and decided that he needed to give feedback in a more constructive and friendly way. Imagine if we could achieve that sort of openness for our older workers too.

Becoming an age-friendly employer

Read more
Aideen Young
Evidence Manager