Lucie Mitchell reports on concerns that Covid has reinforced negative stereotypes about older and disabled workers.
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, older and disabled people have often been viewed as vulnerable, frail and a burden, and there are concerns that Covid has exposed prejudices and inequalities that already existed in the workplace.
At the same time, both older and disabled workers have suffered considerable financial consequences due to the pandemic.
According to a report last year by disability charity Leonard Cheshire, 71% of disabled workers were impacted by issues such as loss of income, furlough or unemployment as a result of the pandemic, and 42% of employers admitted they were wary about hiring disabled job applicants due to concerns around supporting them properly during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the Resolution Foundation found that around half of workers on furlough in May this year were aged 45 and over, up from 38% during the first lockdown – with older workers at a higher risk of unemployment as the furlough scheme is wound down.
“We know it has been the youngest and oldest who have been most affected by job losses during the pandemic,” remarks Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager – fulfilling work at the Centre for Ageing Better. “But the redundancy rates among over 50s was the highest for all age groups during the pandemic and, at the peak, they accounted for 28% of the total furloughed workforce. Until furlough ends in September, we won’t know the true extent of job losses, but there is a real worry it will have hit the over 50s even harder than we first anticipated.”
Dr Brian Beach, senior research fellow at the International Longevity Centre (ILC), remarks that certain trends that have emerged as a result of the pandemic – such as the impact on younger workers and the challenges around later life issues – are entrenching some of the attitudes that currently exist around ableism and ageism.
“More specifically, it’s potentially strengthening this inter-generational conflict and entrenching what we call a ‘lump of labour fallacy’, which has been used repeatedly to encourage, stimulate or incentivise older people to leave the workforce in order to make room for younger workers. We have therefore got to move away from this presumption that old age is a disabled period of life.”
Beach adds that, while we would want to believe that Covid has made employers more aware of entrenched bias within the workforce, he feels they are currently more focused on managing the immediate issues thrown up by the pandemic.
“Right now, employers are dealing more with the reality of the pandemic, and its economic consequences, rather than emphasising some of the social questions that relate to their workforce.”
With many industries facing significant skills shortages at the moment, this could present an opportunity for employers to broaden their approach and tap into more underutilised groups, such as older and disabled workers.
Yet, Marc Woods, former Paralympian and founding partner at inclusion, leadership and performance consultancy Equiida, is not so sure it will be older and disabled employees that stand to benefit from this.
“Of course, the world of economics can drive change and a skills shortage will encourage organisations to look elsewhere or be creative in their hiring practices. Will the older or disabled demographic be the ones to benefit? I am less confident. It is more likely that flexibility in ways of working will lead to other marginalised groups benefitting, such as single parents or the younger generations who don’t want a traditional 9 to 5.”
However, despite statistics showing that older and disabled workers have been more likely to suffer financial or job losses during the pandemic, there are hopes that the shift to increased remote working post-pandemic will enable many to stay in work by removing barriers to employment.
“For both older and disabled employees, remote working can provide greater opportunities because of fewer restraints,” comments Chris Dyer, remote work expert and founder and CEO of PeopleG2. “Onsite barriers like wheelchair access and unique transportation challenges are diminished.”
Beach believes that remote working presents a remarkable opportunity for older workers and those living with disabilities.
“The pandemic has proven to us that it is possible to introduce remote working in many industries and jobs. For years and years, the disabled movement has called for access to remote working and it doesn’t seem that it really came about until non-disabled employees needed it. That gives us a sign of how we have got to be sure we are not being exclusionary accidentally before we reach a crisis point.”
He also emphasises that awareness of the overlap between ageism and ableism is crucial. Government figures show that 46% of pension age adults are disabled, compared to 19% of working age adults, so with many older workers having to face negative stereotypes about this in the workplace, it’s essential that employers acknowledge this is the reality and adapt to the situation.
“We have got to ensure that employers are not only using the right language, but that it’s communicated in the right way to employees at all levels, so they understand it is not just words, it is philosophy or values that are held within the company,” says Beach. “I think this is crucial for employers to do, because it is what employees are going to be asking for in the future.”