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Fabulous or forgotten at 50?

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When 50-year-olds are depicted in the media, the odds are they’ll have grey hair, they’ll be dressed in frumpy clothes, bonus points for glasses or complaining of back ache.

In short, they look old. Anything over 49 is suddenly included in a bracket that goes from 50-80.

But with the average life expectancy in the UK reaching 81.77, 50 is far from old.

As I find myself approaching that milestone birthday, it’s drawn my attention to how this preconception of 50 as being 'past it' is impacting those either already in the workforce, or those seeking to re-enter it.

50 doesn’t feel old. Looking at life expectancy, it’s not old! Yet when it comes to the workplace, there’s a grey line that separates those either side of 50 and very much changes how they’re treated.

It’s time that imbalance is addressed.

The reality of a 50-something at work

From a non-50-year-old’s perspective, it probably doesn’t look like there’s a problem. The government is driving initiatives aimed at getting older workers back into the workforce andover half of UK CEOs are over 50. But let’s look at some statistics that shine a light on the issue.

  • 74% of people asked aged 50+ said they’d been fired because of their age

  • 77% of respondents said they hadn’t been hired for a job because of their age

  • 69% of those asked said they were afraid they’d lose their job because of their age

The reality for many is once your age hits double digits that start with a 5, your experience of the workplace is vastly different.

Fuelled by the media’s portrayal of 50-somethings as past it, many businesses can’t look past someone’s age. Instead of seeing all the wonderful things that come with age, experience and life, they see a ticking clock until retirement.

Stereotypes of old people come into play. Casting them as out of touch, fuddy duddies who can’t turn on a computer and who will moan about the young folk because “in my day we did it differently, we worked harder”. According to research by the CMI only 4 out of 10 hiring managers were open “to a large extent” to hiring people aged between 50 and 64. That’s not even that they’re fully open, they might consider hiring someone aged over 50. That attitude doesn’t just impact anyone returning to the workforce but it hinders any sort of career progression or fluidity.

For younger generations job hopping is normal. If you Google how long you should stay in a job 18 months - 2 years is considered a good amount of time. But for those 50 and over to avoid age discrimination they need to find a role that they can stay in until retirement. Racking up potentially 16 years in the same organisation and possibly the same job just to ensure continuous, secure employment - and that’s if you retire at the current state pension age.

The implications of ageing out workers

Damaging as age discrimination is for workers, it can also be really damaging to businesses. A recent tribunal case ruled in favour of the complainant to the sum of £71,441.36 for unfair dismissal and age discrimination after comments were made about wanting a high energy, youthful sales team and they didn’t want a team of bald headed 50-year-olds.

Making sure that you’re creating an inclusive workplace is basic good business to me.

The advantage of experience

With age comes wisdom, usually. But more than that it brings stability, drive, dedication and generally rational thought.

Now I’m not saying those qualities don’t come with younger hires, we have a number of amazing younger employees at Ambition, but there’s a shift in maturity that can bring a stabilising energy to your organisation.

More than thinking about age groups, we need to be looking at every applicant, every employee as an individual. Leaving aside their age, just as we should their gender, sexuality, race, disability or religion.

Yes, accommodations might be needed, like with anyone else, but that needs to be a discussion with that individual person rather than a snap judgement made on how old they are.

How to avoid unconscious age bias in your hiring

In many ways we’re battling media influence and history so this is an issue which has been built into our thinking for years. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it.

By 2050 more than 4 in 10 workers in the most developed economies will be over 50. If we ignore this mass group of talented people then we’re going to find ourselves understaffed, not through lack of available, qualified candidates but through our own short-sightedness.

So, what can you do? Here are the basics to get the ball rolling.

Understand the issue

Do your research, look at your own organisation, your hiring trends, candidates you’ve rejected, your job adverts. Really dig into the topic and understand how it manifests in your business. Only then can you start to formulate a plan to address unconscious bias in your recruitment processes.

Put policies in place

Now you have a firm grasp on the topic you can make sure the right policies and procedures are in place. Simple initiatives like removing dates from job applications, addressing diversity of ages on hiring panels and acting swiftly on any reports of discrimination or harassment will not only create a supportive environment internally but will attract a diverse range of candidates.

Training and awareness

Ageism in the workplace isn’t just about the hiring manager. Research from 43 different papers shows that stereotypes in the workplace are highly damaging to older workers' careers. Training that addresses these stereotypes, ageism and encourages cohesion by celebrating differences in the workplace can help raise awareness of the issue and address organisation wide unconscious bias.

Rethink your job adverts

Whether you realise it or not your job ads are probably contributing to the issue. Stating years of experience, referring to roles as junior or senior, even whether they’re part time or full time will all influence who applies for the roles.

If a role asks for 5 years experience and someone with 10 years applies, your instinct is to class them as overqualified. They might be overqualified but they also might be excellent at what they do and happy to be at that level. Don’t make that choice for them, because in doing so you’re probably saying no to an older worker who could be a valuable asset to your team.

Retiring at 50 is a luxury that few people have or want. For the majority of us we’ll be working well past that age, and hopefully we’ll be enjoying it. Working has been found to improve physical and mental well being as we get older, so the story needs to change.

We need to stop thinking of 50 as over the hill, and accept it for being just another birthday. The reality is, your 50-something employees have something you can’t buy or develop through training, they have life experience. Turn your back on your older employees and you’ll find that wealth of knowledge will drift away.

But we all need to take responsibility for changing the narrative. We all need to check ourselves for unconscious biases and adjust our thinking accordingly, whether we’re past that magic number or not. Because at some point we’ll all be over 50, and you don’t want to find out then that your life is just beginning.​

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