‘Employers need to confront dual problem of ableism and ageism at work’

A new report highlights the problems of ageism and ableism at work, how they overlap and how older workers internalise them.

Older man and younger woman looking at a computer


Employers need to urgently tackle ageism at work, ensure better access to training and support employees’ health to remain competitive in the post-pandemic recovery, according to a new report.

The report from the International Longevity Centre draws on research by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Kent and shows that, despite being formally banned as part of the Equality Act of 2010, both ageism and ableism continue to be rife in the workplace and that they often overlap.

They say that employers and older workers often see training and professional development as more relevant for younger people and that managers still commonly speak in ageist and ableist terms about older workers being less motivated or less able to undertake training and professional development.

The report adds that these age norms are often also internalised by older workers themselves, with many saying they are “too old” for training and/or promotion and that they should leave that “to the younger ones”. Similarly, the research highlights that internalised ageism and ableism prevents some employees from seeking health support, which may worsen conditions and lead to early retirement.

Boost GDP by eliminating ageism at work

ILC research has found that if countries across the G20 were to enable older workers to work at the same rates as seen in Iceland, this could boost GDP by an average of 7% every year. Supporting health at work, addressing discrimination and ensuring access to training and career development are key to tapping into this potential, the report argues.

Dr Brian Beach, Senior Research Fellow and lead report author, said: “To remain competitive when dealing with an ageing workforce, organisations must act to create inclusive work environments.

“We have known about the barrier that ageism creates for older workers and older jobseekers, and this research points to how older people’s own ageist assumptions can limit their opportunities. This work also highlights the partial overlap between ageist and ableist attitudes – meaning efforts to tackle one must also address the other.

“Employers should therefore educate managers and staff about the social model of disability, which recognises that conditions are only disabling when the surroundings make them so. This shifts the emphasis onto making sure work fits the person rather than the other way around.”

He added that occupational health services should also act as an advocate for workers and focus on ongoing support to enable the worker to stay in work rather than just get back to work.

Decline narrative

Dr Mariska van der Horst, Assistant Professor, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam added: “Both managers and employees seem to have internalised what is referred to as a decline narrative; the idea that with older age comes inevitable physical and cognitive deterioration. This decline narrative seems to be accompanied with a view that paid work is not for people with health problems. Part of what may be referred to as ageism may therefore be hidden ableism.”

“Changing the narrative to stress that ‘not all older workers have health problems’ is not helpful as this may increase ableism and could reinforce the message that work is for “the healthy”. Instead, we need to better teach and understand what is referred to as the social model of disability – to what degree are people disabled by barriers in society rather than by a potential health issue? How can we make the employee more central and supported in the workforce? How can we make the job fit with the person, rather than the person fit the job?”

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