The modern working environment has embraced the call for diversity like never before. According to Diversity Works NZ, an “inclusive culture boosts morale and engagement for all your employees with benefits to productivity and lower staff turnover.”
In fact, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of research available you’ll find:
Diversity and inclusion are increasingly high on the agenda of businesses across the country.
There is a genuine recognition that a more diverse workforce is good for business.
Diversity has become a selling point for employers looking to recruit.
Business owners recognise the value diverse thinking, people and skills bring to our workplaces.
Fantastic news, we’re on the right path!
Or are we?
THE CURRENT STATE OF PLAY
While it’s great that diversity initiatives focus on race representation, flexible working, and better embracing the LGBT community, we still seem to be forgetting about other diverse parts that make up our workforce - you guessed it; the experienced, older workers.
Why are we not doing more to include our experienced and older workers in our diversity and inclusivity strategies? We know our population is aging, birth rates in New Zealand are at a record low and there is a skilled labour shortage, yet we don’t seem to be looking at all of our options.
So, why broaden our horizons and focus our efforts on becoming more inclusive of the older workforce? To put it simply, the facts and figures speak for themselves.
A 2013 Statistics New Zealand survey estimated 26% of New Zealand residents were currently aged 55 and over. By 2061 over 37% of the population will be 55 or over.
There are increasing numbers of workers who wish to remain in the workforce beyond the superannuation age of 65.
15% of the population is over 65, today. By 2038 that percentage will increase to 21% and almost double in number.
One in five people over the age of 65 are still working. This is projected to rise to one in three over the next 15 years.
A recent EMA survey suggested 83% of employers have no plans to address the challenges this demographic change will present and have no policies or strategies in place for workers over 50.
In summary: the workforce is ageing and we don’t really have a strong plan in place to support this reality. All of the research points towards a very short-sighted approach from NZ businesses, which in retrospect is perhaps the inevitable result of a society that has abandoned the tried and trusted tools of old, for the shiny and new.
To see an example of this short-sighted approach, you need only look to one of our highest-profile government departments: New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trades, who recently released their 2018 - 2028 inclusion strategy document. The document covers a wide range of initiatives to help the LGBT community, Pasifika communities, an ethnically diverse society and address elitism - to name a few. Alas, not a single mention of the older segment of the working population whatsoever.
So why is this?
It could be to do with some of the myths about older workers.
YOU CAN TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS
One of the biggest barriers to inclusivity of the aging workforce is the myths and stigma that surrounds this segment of society. However, if you dig a little deeper you’ll quickly realise that these myths are just that: myths.
HERE’S WHAT WE MEAN:
“Older workers are not very flexible”
On the contrary, older workers are open to part-time working and happy to be part of the gig economy and work as and when required.
“Older workers cost more”
Not always! As people start to scale down their careers, they are more realistic about pay and benefits, which means that earning top-dollar isn’t usually high on their list of priorities. They’re happy to take less demanding and stressful positions than they perhaps had in the past, in fact, many spend their time doing unpaid or voluntary work within their communities.
“Older workers are not tech-savvy”
You’ve probably heard this old chestnut before, especially if you’re a part of a digital workplace. Truth be told, this argument no longer holds water with our older workers, having worked with technology for the last 20 plus years. They all own smartphones and use social media as much as younger generations, and in their wealth of experience have become pretty adept at adapting quickly.
“Their skills are outdated”
On the contrary, older workers bring different skills and maturity of thinking to the workplace, as well as often exceptional interpersonal skills and a strong work ethic. The other benefit you might not have considered is that they make great mentors and role models for younger workers, and can pass on many years of experience and wisdom.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
Whether conscious discrimination or not, older workers often struggle to find new employment and face age barriers both at work or while job hunting.
Luckily, there are organisations out there fighting the good fight. In 2017, a recruitment company called Wise Ones was launched in Auckland to focus on older workers aged 45 and over. Founder and Director Kate Ross said her vision for Wise Ones was inspired by hearing many stories from experienced candidates who were fearful that they would never get another job. “For me this was the revelation that set the Wise Ones idea going, to help the growing numbers of people over 45 who want to stay in employment for longer.”
But it’s going to take more than one organisation, it’s a systematic mentality we’ve got to work together to change.
So what can you do as a business owner or manager to encourage age diversity?
Firstly, perhaps put a conscious plan in place to attract, include and retain older workers as part of your diversity strategy. While we spend a lot of time thinking about how we attract younger workers, let’s also consider the needs and wants of older workers and how we can accommodate and support more flexible work practices that meet their needs.
Secondly, think about how you can harness their knowledge and experience for the benefit of the business through mentoring and being the “expert” in their area of work.
Next, consider what new skills and knowledge your older workers may need to develop to unlock the potential to stay relevant and then offer them training. They still want to keep learning, too!
And finally, throw out all your biases and assumptions. Older employees aren’t more difficult to train, technologically challenged or disinterested. Actually, on the contrary, they make up a huge segment of the population using smartphones, streaming their content and learning the ropes of the digital workplace. These older workers still want to work hard and do a good job. Treat them just like any other team members and understand their motivators and future plans.
At the end of the day, it’s time for New Zealand businesses to be less ageist and to stop unconsciously dismissing the merits of older workers. These are our greatest untapped resources and, if you aren’t embracing them, you’re missing the value they may be able to bring to your business.