Time to act on ageism at work

workingwise.co.uk’s first event, sponsored by Phoenix Group, for National Older Workers Week was a discussion of survey findings about the issues facing older workers and what employers can do to address them.

Group of varying age women sitting chatting and smiling


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National Older Workers Week launched this week, sponsored by QA, with a presentation of an extensive workingwise.co.uk survey of older workers’ views on recruitment, training and retention issues, followed by a discussion of how to tackle ageism at work and boost lifelong learning.

Patrick Thomson, Policy Institute Director at the Shaw Trust, said the figures came as no surprise and echoed other research, showing things were not changing fast enough. He said age bias is fairly widespread, but not talked about despite the fact that most people will be older workers.

The Shaw Trust supports younger people and Patrick has just moved there from the Centre for Ageing Better. He sees ageism at both ends of the work spectrum. Older workers are told they have too much experience, while younger ones are told they don’t have enough. “Employers need to think about this more carefully,” he said. 

There are assumptions made that older workers, for instance, are friendlier but less competent. Those ageist assumptions matter, said Thomson, not just for older workers but for employers, especially in a jobs market characterised by skills shortages and by an ageing workforce. “It is demographically baked in that the workforce is getting older. That has been happening over the last 20 years. Older workers are the fastest growing group of the labour force, especially women,” said Thomson. 

He added that employers were behind the curve and just catching up to this reality, with age being part of their diversity and inclusion agenda, but way behind other protected characteristics in terms of action.

Thomson said an Institute for Fiscal Studies and Centre for Ageing Better study showed one in eight people had changed their retirement plans due to the pandemic. Everything is in flux and employers need to engage older workers more in order to recruit and retain them, he said, adding that many who had been made redundant were still struggling to get back to work. Studies show that older workers find it more difficult to get a new job and that the longer they are out of work, the harder it is to get back in.

Thomson said employers need to look at more flexible working, including working from home which can help work feel more manageable, but they must also ensure this is not forced on workers and that there is a distinction made between their work and other aspects of their lives. Support for carers is also important. 

He added that not all older workers want the same thing and that employers need to talk to them, find out what they want and institute recruitment practices that don’t discriminate against older workers, for instance, having age diverse interview panels, avoiding stereotypical words in job adverts, sharing a general pro-diversity statement on job adverts, having more structured interviews to eliminate bias and so forth.  There are some good examples of best practice available and employers can also learn from these, said Thomson.


Speaking in connection with workingwise.co.uk figures showing 54% older workers have received no training recently but that 85% are open to learning new skills, Allan Allison, Director – Apprenticeships & Funded Learning at QA, said there is a huge skills crisis in the digital and technology sector and that the number of people working in the sector has reduced during Covid. There is an urgent need therefore to get more people upskilled and reskilled, including older workers, he said.

QA, which is sponsoring National Older Workers Week, is the largest provider of digital training in the UK and Allison said there is more training available in the technology world than ever before. He is keen to raise awareness among employers and employees about what is out there in terms of funded learning. That includes digital bootcamps and apprenticeships which are open to all ages. QA has recently done a digital bootcamp for women returners, for instance.

Allison said employers need to think differently about older workers and work harder to promote training opportunities. Telling the stories of older people who have retrained or upskilled is a vital way of doing this, he said. Many of the courses are delivered online and are fully flexible.

In a general discussion after the initial responses to the survey findings, panelists spoke about the need to challenge assumptions about the requirement for a degree to do many jobs. Older workers are less likely to have gone to university, but have decades of experience. Is a degree always necessary? they asked.

Thomson also spoke about the need to educate people generally about ageism, which is something that is “deep-rooted in society”, and to call out ageist attitudes and comments in the same way other negative comments about people with protected characteristics are deemed unacceptable.

Thomson and Allison ended by saying that progress is being made, particularly on making government-funded training more accessible to people. Allison said older people want to learn and more needs to be done to match that appetite for learning with learning opportunities.

The event came ahead of a new study showing how Covid has impacted older workers, particularly older women, highlighting the need for employers to think more carefully about recruitment and retention of this age group.

*National Older Workers Week, sponsored by QA,  runs from 22nd November. The week includes a series of online events for employers and candidates with leading experts and employers. In addition to the event on the survey findings, there was a focus on best practice in recruitment on Tuesday. A panel discussion on managing multigenerational teams will be held on Wednesday and a candidate-focused discussion will be held on Thursday about finding a job you love. All events are recorded and the recordings will be posted in the next few days. Find out more and register for the free events here.

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