By denting the GDP ageism is making us poorer

Domini Bingham

Human resource departments continue to see older workers as a management issue and not as an opportunity

Domini Bingham, Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the UCL Institute of Education, University College of London

Lecturer in Educational Leadership at UCL Institute of Education at the University College of London, Domini Bingham is the author of Older Workforces: Re-imagining Later Life Learning, a brand new book just arrived in the bookstores. In her work, she details how our economy is closed in the double grip of an aging population and an ageist mentality. 

I found her work immediately captivating, because it helps to explain the forces that, despite anti-discrimination and equality laws, push older workers - and women in particular - to the margins, wasting their talents, depriving their companies and impoverishing entire countries. 

Your work covers the intersection between diversity, well-being and learning. As far as I understood, this trilogy came unexpected. Can you tell us more about it?

For many years, I looked at the barriers that prevent people from learning, and well-being is one of them. I began this research because I felt quite indignant when I realized that, because their well-being is on the line, older workers are not always guaranteed the possibility to train after a certain age. 

At a closer look, I realized that I couldn’t quite separate diversity, well-being, and learning, because they are deeply intertwined. In fact, the workers who flourish can do so because their workplace is structured to retain them and this has a lot to do with the company culture of diversity and inclusion

Despite anti-discrimination and equality laws, older workers face a series of exclusions, from learning to job opportunities:  What elements are at play?

Even if in principle equality and diversity are established by the law, the reality is different. Older workers are overlooked for development and promotions because the current, but outdated, mentality believes that they are not worth the investment. Paradoxically, this happens while the younger generation of workers is on the move and this generates a gap in the resources. Companies do not have a strategy: the human resources departments continue to see older workers as a management issue and not as an opportunity. 

On the other hand, when older workers do not get attention, they feel they have no voice, they feel vulnerable and ashamed to ask. In one word, they feel invisible and, more often than not, they plateau. That’s why they leave. The discrimination on leaving operates on many levels: it’s in the way managers think about retaining staff, but it’s also in the way the organization looks at the older workers and the way these same workers look at themselves.

Age related discrimination in the work place is particularly taxing for women. What can you say about it?

Compared with their partners, we know that women do a larger share of caretaking and the growing longevity makes things more complex, because women have to care for kids and aging parents at the same time. They work part-time more than men; they don’t put themselves forward for learning and promotions. When you’re down the food chain, you feel less empowered and the cycle goes on. That’s why the OECD asked specifically for interventions to protect women workers in their 50s and 60s.

Ageism has a much wider impact than what we’re used to think. In particular, it seems that there is a connection between ageism and the sense of impoverishment we're experimenting in the West. This effect of ageism is generally overlooked. Do you agree? 

We are making ourselves poorer because of ageism. A study by McKinsey discovered that for the companies in the top quartile for executive-board diversity (gender, nationalities and age), returns on equity (ROE) were 53% higher than the ones with the least diversity. 

The OECD has calculated that we would add 2.6 trillion dollars to the economy if we increase the rate of older people in the workforce to the level of Sweden. Failing to do so, instead, would translate in a loss of 1.7% per annum of GDP per capita over the next thirty years, a reduction of 30% from 1970-2000. We need to understand that the older workers are indispensable to offset the decline of the economic growth.

What measures should be put in place to counteract this trend?

We need to acknowledge that the default age of retirement is an obstacle. We need to slow down the level of inactive people by retaining and retraining workers. The OECD and the World Bank have stressed the importance of lifelong learning, but in order to implement this change, we must address the big lag in the ideas. The where-is-my-pension mentality has to go. 

What are the most sought-after skills of older workers? 

Companies are in need of soft skills like informal knowledge, team working, problem solving. Older workers show an appetite for collegiate learning, an approach that includes younger workers.

What positive changes could a work organization introduce to maximize these soft skills and to engage with older workers?

Learning is a human right and it is a concept that should be put at the heart of any Csr program (corporate social responsibility). Not pushing the workers out is part of an equality discourse. Companies should manage the transitions, simplify things for the workers who want to move on and aside. As I said at the beginning, well-being and learning should be addressed. People are not machines, although they work next to them, and activities like occupational health is a critical resource strategy.

Older workers reach a point in their careers when they look for meaning more than for promotions. How could this element be factored into HR policies to train/retain older workers?

Older workers shy away from promotions, but the quest for meaning and interaction with colleagues is a common need. Unfortunately, the motivation theory doesn’t generally support these desires and it is something that companies should act on to take into account.

With reference to ageism, what should we notice and, potentially, do to unlearn the cultural norms related to what a career should look like?

We are stuck in an old kind of mindset. We have to be more assertive, abandon the fear of getting old and request the necessary changes.

© 2019 Domini Bingham  All Rights Reserved