Ageism is a dirty word, stretching across workplaces and society as a whole. Even if in principle equality and diversity are established by the law, the reality can be different, and a number of factors are in play. For example, it appears older workers are often passed over for learning opportunities, even if unconsciously so, despite wanting to continue working and developing.
Empowering older workers through learning and development turns ageing in workplaces on its head. In my new book, Older Workforces: Re-imagining Later Life Learning, l seek to re-imagine how workplaces could capitalise on older workers’ possibilities in a time of intense demographic and digital change.
However, in a complex environment some older workers do not put themselves forward for development, partly due to societal stigmatisation and lack of voice, but also where plateauing is colluded with by line management.
As one research participant said: ‘I don’t want to have to apologise for wanting a career at 60’.
My research reveals some of the barriers that older workers encounter in an era of extended working lives, and offers solutions. These barriers make a crucial difference to whether older workers stay on or exit out of the workplace to retirement. If this is the case, then organisations are losing the skills and experience that this grouping brings. Yet, sadly, some older workers express feelings of frustration and vulnerability as ‘being on the scrap heap’.
Moreover, there is not only a human capital cost to not employing or retaining older workers in wasted potential, there is also a financial implication. PwC has calculated that across the OECD countries as a whole, $3.5 trillion could be added to total long-term GDP if the rate of people aged 55+ in the workforce was increased to the level of Iceland, New Zealand and several other countries.
We need to understand that older workers are indispensable to offsetting the decline of economic growth. Additionally, keeping older people active and mentally challenged increases health and wellbeing.
Older Workforces: Re-imagining Later Life Learning brings together a selection of research, literature reviews and case studies from different organisations, sectors and individual accounts of ‘staying on’. The book considers examples of good practice, where older workers are seen as ‘vessels of untapped potential’, rather than as an issue that needs managing.
Examples include paid senior internships for professionals to restart careers after extended breaks, reverse mentoring, intergenerational knowledge sharing and team working and the establishing of personal learning plans.
The book calls for a societal change in how we view older people and how older people refer to themselves.
The research findings bring together a trio of different aspects: lifelong learning, diversity and equality in workplaces focused on opportunities for learning and development. It considers the types and forms that are most valued by individuals and organisations. This understanding becomes ever more critical as employment in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will focus on high level thinking skills, problem solving and ability to work in teams, and a large proportion of lower level jobs will be rendered obsolete or will be augmented through digitalisation and robotisation. With potentially four generations of people being in the same workplace, the ability to work intergenerationally is pushed to the fore.
The findings bring in new understandings of the vulnerability and lack of voice that older people feel – particularly older women, who are often in part time, lower paid roles. A model of an enabling workplace structure focused on critical human resource management is proposed, offering an inclusive environment whereby older workers can be empowered through learning and development.
Having an organisational practice of critical diversity management ensures talents are well used and older workers retained and would provide a culture for more supportive environments for older workers through progressive policy. This culture views development as a mobility tool to move on and out and recognises life transitions where it is accepted that people can move across rather than up the ladder. This organisational model views mainstreaming progression for all talent as the norm whatever their age.
‘Older Workforces: Re-imagining Later Learning’ is published by Routledge (February 2019). Twitter @DominiBingham.
A seminar and book launch will be taking place on 3 April, 5-7pm at the UCL Institute of Education. Click here for more information and to register.
Photo: Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers via Creative Commons