Is ageism still a workplace taboo?

04 March 2020

When Rico Back joined Royal Mail in 2018 at the age of 64, he became the oldest CEO of a FTSE100 company. Back is in good company. In fact, the number of CEOs over the age of 60 has doubled in the last 20 years, with BP, Burberry and Barclays all led by chief executives in their sixties. If this statistic proves anything, it’s that the ability to innovate and adapt is not an age-specific quality. While the boardroom may have changed structure in recent years with the emergence of roles such as CPO, CAIO and CLO, the C-Suite has proved that the most valuable asset an organisation has in today’s rapidly changing global economy is experience.

Yet despite welcoming this wisdom and experience into the boardroom, elsewhere in the labour market, echoes of ‘OK boomer’ ring loud. The implication of this ubiquitous put-down is, of course, that the older person on the receiving end doesn’t know what they are talking about. It’s patronising and intended to be. So much so that even the US Supreme Court has considered whether the phrase constitutes discrimination. With an increasingly older workforce, these concerns are becoming more common. According to statistics, 31 per cent of the UK workforce is now over the age of 50; in 2019 this cohort also saw the biggest increase in employment rates. Despite this, myths surrounding the productivity of older workers persist. A lack of digital skills is often cited as an impediment to high performance, but new research by University of Sheffield has finally debunked the myth that boomers are past their prime, finding that older workers do not, in fact, hinder the financial performance of an organisation.

A YouGov survey commissioned by RSM would appear to confirm this too, with most employers (66 per cent) saying that an age diverse workforce has improved their organisation’s skillset. However, 41 per cent were concerned about multi-generational conflict in their workplaces – hardly surprising when you consider that some workforces now span five decades. Ageism, of course, cuts both ways, with millennials as likely to be accused of being apathetic as boomers are of being irrelevant. Far from irrelevant, over-50s actually contribute 76 per cent of the UK’s financial wealth and almost half of its consumer spending. In order to access the ‘grey pound’, it’s vital that organisations overcome any potential conflict and leverage age-diversity for success. A few practical steps can help an employer get the most out of a multi-generational workforce:

  1. Are you guilty of believing stereotypes? We all are, at some point, but a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to management won’t help. Try to shift the focus away from an employee’s age and generation and, instead, view them through the lens of their job role, level of seniority and what kind of support they’ll need to develop in the organisation.
  2. Adapt your style of communication. Millennials have grown up with platforms like Slack or Zoom, that provide instantaneous, and sometimes curt, responses. They are direct and serve their purpose in moving workflow along. Whereas Baby Boomers and Generation X often value face-to-face engagement more. When addressing your team, consider whether you can vary the way you do this so that all staff are engaged.
  3. Find ways to combine complementary skill sets. Younger workers tend to embrace technology faster than their older colleagues, often using it to streamline and manage tasks more efficiently. Whereas older workers will have years of lived experience, not just in a specific role but in the workplace in general, that can’t be taught in a classroom. Mentoring programmes that pair younger and older workers or more balanced teams, can help to encourage this exchange of hard and soft skills, and support organisations in adopting a more rounded knowledge base.

Above all else, employers should remember that just as people are living and working longer, they are also remaining customers for longer. A harmonious, age-inclusive workforce is a vital weapon in the arsenal of any organisation that wants to access the spending power of older consumers.