What makes a top employer for older workers?

Our new Top Employer Award judge Patrick Thomson from the Centre for Ageing Better talks about what he is looking for in progressive employers and the impact of Covid on older workers.

Senior male archivist holding open red notebook in hands, looking at camera, man wearing face mask due Covid-19 pandemic


Patrick Thomson is WM People’s new Top Employer Award judge. Patrick has been lead on the Centre for Ageing Better’s  age-friendly employers programme and is just about to move to the Shaw Trust Foundation where he will be Director of their Policy institute

A former member of the Government Social Research Unit, he commissioned and managed projects for the Department for Work and Pensions’ ageing society strategy, leading to the evidence base for the removal of the Default Retirement Age and before that he managed wide-scale recruitment and workforce programmes for the London 2012 Organising Committee. So he has wide experience in working on issues relating to older workers and a good knowledge of what the best employers have been doing.

The Top Employer Awards, now in their 12th year, showcase the best in flexible working, parent-friendly and age-friendly working as well as celebrating employers who go the extra mile to promote equality in the workplace.

Patrick agrees the picture for older workers over the last year and a half has been mixed with a minority in particularly sectors badly hit by job losses. He says research shows it is the oldest and youngest workers who have been the most impacted when it comes to job loss, with older workers typically taking longer to find a new job. Older workers have also been more likely to be on furlough and to remain there. A lot of people have been pushed into early retirement, says Patrick, earlier than they may have been financially ready for. And, of course, not working means many may be missing out on some of the mental health benefits of work – the sense of purpose, the social side of work and so forth. Research shows one in eight people between 50 and 64 changed their retirement plans due to Covid, either bringing them forward or delaying them.

Yet on the positive side, there was the mass remote working experiment. While remote working may not be appropriate for all jobs or all people, Patrick says it offers older workers more choice in where and how they work, with older people being more likely to have their own homes and a better homeworking environment than their younger counterparts. Patrick adds that commuting can have a big impact on whether work is sustainable for older workers. And he says older people are more likely to live in rural and suburban areas so they could benefit if, post-Covid, there are more remote jobs available.

Knowledge transfer

Patrick stresses that we are nowhere near knowing the full implications of Covid. “A lot is still up in the air,” he says. For instance, there are big discussions about how hybrid working can be done in a way that doesn’t impact on knowledge exchange, for instance, between older and younger workers. While Patrick says the framing of older workers as ‘selfish’ for wanting to work more from home is not right, he admits there is an issue for employers to think about. “Transferring knowledge is not the same on Zoom,” he says. Being in the room can offer extra opportunities such as the ability to shadow people, to observe how more senior people operate, to note body language or simply to grab someone at the end of a meeting. That means employers need to think laterally and devise more structured, less opportunistic ways to transfer knowledge.

Remote working could also reinforce hierarchies if not managed well, adds Patrick. “It can be easy to be passive observers on Zoom. We have been amazingly quick at adapting to online working, but there is the slow tail of how we get it right,” he says.

Asked if the spotlight on ageism in the recruitment process due to long-term unemployment could encourage employers to address ageism in the workplace – something emerging evidence suggests many are too complacent about.  Patrick adds that the 50s and 60s can be times of major life transitions with regard to a person’s health, their caring responsibilities or preparations for retirement. It is important to have a good employer who is aware of these stresses and who invests in lifelong learning.  “People need an employer who makes sure that older people are not a forgotten group,” he states.

Patrick adds: “A lot of ageist attitudes remain and they become internalised. People say things that would not be accepted about other protected characteristics. And if people say them enough you start believing them about yourself. In some sectors like media and technology people can be made to feel past it from a fairly early age. That is worrying as society and the economy benefits from people working.”

Top employer awards

When it comes to what he is looking for in a top employer of older workers – and a top employer generally, Patrick says he is keen to see employers who are doing practical, proactive things that are embedded in their processes.

He would like to see employers looking more closely at their recruitment and other processes to weed out ageist language or assumptions. He is optimistic that things will change and points to the rapid embrace of menopause policies by some employers.

He thinks that employers would do well to ensure they have good feedback loops from all employees, including older workers, and that they should encourage their employees to shape and design their policies, with all initiatives to address inequalities being intersectional. “We shouldn’t just lump workers into one group or think of them as a cost or a burden. People are so much more varied. They have so many different sides and bring so much richness to what they can contribute at work,” says Patrick. 

*To enter the Top Employer Awards, click here. The deadline for entries in 21st October. 

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