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Why age diversity in business matters

One of the biggest challenges faced by older workers is ageism. Almost a third of organisations report having an age at which they are hesitant to hire employees, with the majority indicating they are unwilling to recruit employees above the age of 50, according to figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission. While ageism is still widespread, it is based on incorrect assumptions, it can negatively impact people’s mental health, and it is bad for business.

 At the time of writing this the world is grappling with the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Older workers are especially vulnerable with their retirement savings on a sharemarket rollercoaster ride. Even more concerning is the number of businesses across many industries having to lay off workers or close their doors completely, forcing many people into an unwanted early retirement.

 Once the crisis is over, it will be more important than ever to hire older workers into the retail industry. Increasing the age diversity of your business is likely to have long-term positive impacts on the bottom line as well as on the economic recovery of our country.

Beware of stereotypes

Stereotypes make our lives easier – they are shortcuts that enable us to respond to situations without having to think about excessive amounts of information. However, when we use overgeneralised beliefs or stereotypes, they can be damaging.

Here are some common beliefs about older workers and why they are wrong.

Myth: Older workers are just counting the days until they can retire

Fact: Older workers are staying in the workforce for longer.

Evidence: 177,500 previously retired persons aged 45 years and over were either back at work or planning to go back. (ABS data 2016-2017)

Fifty-eight per cent of older workers report expecting to retire past 66 years of age, and 20 per cent report expecting to retire past 71 years of age. (HRC 2018)

Myth: Older workers do not like or understand technology.

Fact: Older people are the fastest growing users of technology

Evidence: Seventy-seven per cent of the 55+ age group report owning a smartphone and using apps. (Deloitte 2018)

Seventy-three per cent of people over 65 are internet users compared to 14 per cent in 2000. (Forbes 2019)

Myth: Older workers have lower performance and productivity

Fact: Experience is a greater predictor of productivity than age.

Evidence: Respondents report the main advantages of recruiting older workers are the experience they bring (76 per cent) and the professional knowledge they have acquired. (68 per cent) (HRC 2018)

Workers continue to accumulate knowledge with crystallised intelligence peaking in our 60s to 70s. (Hartshorne 2015)

Fact: Older workers are more prone to health problems

Myth: Older workers are less likely to take sick leave and experience work-related injuries.

Evidence: People 65 years and over reported the lowest rate of work-related injuries and illnesses. (CSIRO 2018)

Workers aged 60+ years take fewer sick days. (BUPA 2012)

Fact: Older workers will cost the business more for their experience

Myth: Older employees can save costs to employers and boost the economy.

Evidence: A 10 per cent increase in workers over 50 years adds $16 million spending to the economy. (NSA 2012)

 Job tenure for workers aged over 45 is double the Australian average. (HILDA 2019)

Ageism impacts mental health

When people are overlooked for jobs because of their age, it can impact their mental health. Research shows that poor mental health is associated with unemployment and early retirement, and people who experience ageism are significantly more likely to experience depressive symptoms. A study conducted by Lyons and colleagues in 2017 revealed that ageism was related to several key mental health variables in a sample of Australians aged 60 years and older. Findings from this study suggest that not only do experiences of ageism relate to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, but that the impact is greater for those who are at the younger end of being “old”.

On the other hand, older adults who can be productive in their roles experience positive impacts on their mental and physical health. Employing older workers who do good work has been shown to help then maintain their social networks, which counters the impacts of loneliness and isolation, and also boosts their self-esteem.

Age diversity is good for business

The retail sector is an integral part of our economy, and the market for specific goods and products is a reflection of the communities that stores operate in. A successful business has a culture and a strategy that is in touch with the community it supports. The most effective way to influence organisational culture is through who leads and who is hired. Recruiting strategically to harness the broader age diversity within the community is key for many reasons:

Customer connection: Think about who is buying your product and who influences those buying decisions. Perhaps you have younger workers in a fashion store aimed at late teens and early 20s. But if grandparents, for example, fund those purchases then having older workers in the store could be beneficial.

Maturity and wisdom: As people experience more of life’s ups and downs, they develop greater wisdom and intuition, and can apply this maturity in ways that are beneficial to the business. This can be everything from dealing with a difficult customer, to applying their experience with your product, to creatively solving a logistical problem.

Economic growth: Often part-time or casual work is exactly what older people want and need. Perhaps they were previously a senior manager or ran their own business, but were made redundant, went out of business or chose to leave a high-pressure career. Designing your workforce to accommodate the strengths and needs of older people keeps them off Jobseeker payments and contributing to the economy.

Social connection: As online shopping becomes easier and more popular, it is important to think about why people might come into a physical store. Perhaps it’s instant gratification, perhaps your product needs to be touched and tried before buying, but perhaps it’s for advice about the product, reassurance or because they enjoy the human side of shopping. Be sure to hire people who have the experience and personal skills to create the shopping experience your brand wants to be known for.

Ageing population: The population is ageing, and for the first time since federation, Australia has more people aged 45 or older than those under the age of 30. Coupled with people living longer and healthier lives, more older people will want and need to work. Industries such as retail are highly likely to see more and more job applications from older workers.

Productivity and engagement: Having mature-aged workers in an organisation has been shown to contribute to increased productivity, greater innovation, access to a larger talent pool and improved customer engagement (Professionals Australia, 2015). Research shows that mature-aged workers often have high levels of work commitment and engagement.

How to hire the right people

There are two golden rules for hiring the right people regardless of their age.

 Challenge stereotypes: Bias against older people because of false, negative stereotypes is common. It’s not enough to raise awareness about biases, people need to interact with older people and see leaders challenging ageism. Sharing examples of counter-stereotypical behaviour can be effective, as can raising awareness about the facts which prove stereotypes wrong.

 Align the selection process: Assessment and selection processes need to explicitly counter decision-making that is ageist. Fair, evidence-based processes incorporate steps that highlight the use of stereotypes and provide alternatives. Best practice recommendations have been developed by the Australian government in collaboration with the Australian Industry Group (AIG) regarding shortlisting and selection of older workers.

These include:

Focusing on skills and abilities

Asking only job-related questions

Using mixed-age interview panels

Communicating supports and benefits available to older workers

Signalling openness to age diversity through the content and relevance of job advertisements

An age-inclusive environment is one that values the unique contribution of individuals from all life stages and backgrounds and in which everyone can flourish. Beliefs that reinforce competition between age groups are unhelpful and untrue. For example, there is no basis to the belief that older people take jobs away from younger people. In reality the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed, and research across OECD countries shows that, if anything, increased rates of employment among older people are associated with higher youth employment.

People of all ages benefit from access to meaningful work in a supportive environment where they can use their skills and knowledge. As we get older, what constitutes “good work” does start to look a little bit different, and employers need to consider the real changes that impact people as they age. This means separating the myths from the facts, and using evidence-based practice to create an age-inclusive organisation. Businesses that actively seek to employ older workers will be better positioned for the future of work.

Rachael Palmer is an organisational psychologist at Transitioning Well in Melbourne.

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