Is 50 really the new 30? Not unless you’re a "digital native"

Recent research suggests age discrimination is alive and well in the UK as more companies advertise for "millennial talent" 

A glaring statistic highlights the state of ageism in our workforce. Research from Barclays on the digital skills gap revealed that 40 per cent of the surveyed businesses opt to hire younger, “more digitally savvy” employees to address the skills gap.

45 per cent of businesses went as far as to state they believe older employees are often slower to pick up digital skills.

“At a time where seven out of ten UK organisations are making compromise hires to overcome the skills gap, companies need to focus on hiring and retaining the right talent, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity,” Ian Dowd, director at NGA Human Resources, said.

While growth is recognised as vital for business success by nine in ten companies surveyed by NGA Human Resources, these businesses felt the current skills crisis was holding the UK back. In a desperate bid to bridge the skills gap, could growing companies be dismissing capable workers based on prejudice?

Perception versus reality

Workers aged over 50 are routinely overlooked for promotion despite possessing the essential knowledge and experience needed to fill the skills gap.

Separate research from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) found that managers rated team members aged 50 plus far lower than younger age groups for their keenness to learn, develop and progress, scoring them at 46 per cent for these attributes, compared to 79 per cent for their younger millennial colleagues (born 1977–1997).

However, the over 50s rated their own keenness to develop at 94 per cent, higher than the youngest millennial age group surveyed, who trailed in last place with 87 per cent.

This suggests a conflict between the managements’ perception of older employees and the over 50s’ own self belief./p>

Kate Cooper, head of applied research and policy at ILM explained: “We are seeing signs of organisational ageism, where highly skilled and talented staff members have less opportunity to progress as they get older. It seems this culture is so embedded that many workers over 50s are accepting they have limited opportunities in their current organisations.”

Exclusionary terms don’t help

A survey of 200 employers published by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) found that businesses need to improve the way they advertise jobs and provide training opportunities in order to attract older workers. For example, a softer form of ageism is evident in job descriptions seeking for “digital natives” when hiring. The term itself has come under fire for excluding older applicants. It’s euphemistic counterparts include “millennial talent”, and even the term “recent grad”.

Battling unconscious bias

According to talent acquisition expert, Michael Barrington Hibbert, ageism in the workforce may have been exacerbated by the 2008 recession, which “marginalised many groups just in terms of the labour market,” including women over 40.

“There is little doubt that middle aged women are finding it incredibly challenging to get into work. Is it because they are over qualified? Is it ageism? Look, age discrimination is something which clients simply can’t do, however there are occasions when unconscious bias does play its part in limiting the opportunities of middle aged women getting into work,” he said.

“We have placed numerous middle aged female candidates into organisations, but they have to work on their CV to get through the door,” he explained. Some of the “tactics” he employs to reduce the chances of unconscious bias in the recruitment process, his company recommends middle aged client “condense their CVs to only reflect the last 15 years of employment.”

However, advising jobseekers to deny or hide their accomplishments in a bid to fight unconscious bias may be equated to advising an ethnic minority jobseeker to change their name to get their foot in the door.

“Older workers can face unique challenges in the jobs market which recruiters can help them address. The ultimate decision as to who is employed does not lie with recruiters, however, they have a duty to ensure they are compiling diverse long and short lists, and challenging unconscious bias wherever it arises,” Kevin Green, REC’s chief executive said. The group is working with Age UK to help more businesses realise the benefits that come from employing older workers.

The fact remains that Britain’s population is ageing. Hiring older workers just makes business sense, as Dr Ros Altmann, the government’s business champion for older workers, explained: “With an ageing population, many of whom would like to work longer, businesses and recruiters have a wide pool of skills and experience available. Too often the talents of older applicants can be overlooked.”

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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