Rethinking the age issue at work

Professor Philip Taylor has spent years researching the kind of issues that face people in their later working lives. He speaks to about rethinking how we address them.

Older man and younger woman looking at a computer


Is the way people are talking about Joe Biden’s presidency reinforcing ageist attitudes and having a wider knock-on effect across the pond?

Professor Philip Taylor from the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research says the way Biden’s age is being framed in media reports is “quite dispiriting” and suggests not much progress has been made on combating ageism over the years. “It’s very disconcerting given all the effort that has gone into overcoming ageist barriers,” he says. “It seems we haven’t made as much progress as we should have.”

On the one hand, he says the news that the battle for the presidency in the US is being fought by two near octogenarians could be seen as a positive for older people, showing you can be successful at work at any age. Taylor mentions Mick Jagger and the businessman Warren Buffet, now in his 90s. “It’s basically a good news story clouded by ageist rhetoric,” he says.

He adds that his problem with the coverage of this and other stories about older people at work is the uni-dimensional focus on age as “the only factor in older people’s lives”, rather than other issues such as gender or socio-economic status. “We need to think in a more sophisticated way about the topic,” he says, adding that the word ‘older’ is a vague term used by policymakers to denote a very heterogeneous group of people. He states: “People do cartwheels to describe what an older worker is. It’s usually someone over 50, but do people over 50 have a lot in common? A 49 year old may have more in common with a 50 year old than a 50 year old has with a 60 year old. Why is 50 suddenly the magic number?”

He also cites older women in their 50s and 60s who might be ramping up their careers after years spent caring rather than winding them down.

A multi-generational approach

For Professor Taylor, confronting ageism requires a multi-generational approach that recognises that young people also experience it. “I think we could achieve more if we confronted ageism across the board. We could engage everyone in the discussion and that would go further towards addressing the issues of older people too,” he says.

He adds that ageism may be one factor making it difficult for older people to work longer, but there may be other reasons, including health, skill sets, changes in a particular industry and more. “The problem is that we are only seeing older workers through that one lens,” he says, adding that that doesn’t address the issues longer working lives throw up for different people in different circumstances. 

Professor Taylor would like to see more support for people in manual roles to transition into new careers that they can do for longer. For him it’s about giving people more choice. By seeing everything through the ageism lens we may not be focusing on the practical changes that could be made to help many older people, he states. That includes retraining and Professor Taylor says internalised ageism may be one of the barriers to upskilling – the idea that you are too old to retrain or that no-one wants you because of your age. Talking about ageism all the time “feeds into people’s perceptions about themselves”, he adds, citing a paper he co-wrote on the ‘enduring myth of endemic age discrimination’ in Australia.

He says there is a need to engage with people about longer working lives much earlier in the working lifecycle to head off potential later problems. For that reason he favours ‘Midlife MOTs’, but feels they need to be rolled out much more widely.

Professor Taylor has been working in this field for many years and feels the conversation has not shifted much since the 1990s. He would like to see more focus on preparing managers with the right skills to manage a multi-generational workforce. A recent paper on early retirement schemes in higher education talks about management bias and argues the need to draw from other diversity initiatives “to sever the link university leadership perceive between the divestment of older workers and the fulfilment of modernising agendas”. Another paper on age management outlines the need for a new concept of Common Good human resource management (HRM), focused on sustainability, management and inequality, as a potential means of encouraging business responses focused on grand challenges such as population ageing.

“We need to do much better in this space,” says Professor Taylor. “Our advocacy needs to be better and more sophisticated.”

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