Changing the law to eliminate mandatory retirement was easier than changing the societal attitudes that make workplace age discrimination a reality for too many older workers. Laws can’t change prejudices but they can stop people from acting on them — and, over time, change societal norms.
Until then, employers need to recognize inherent presumptions about older workers and proactively counteract them.
Sometimes, negative attitudes are hidden behind positive platitudes. While people may value the experience and loyalty of older workers, the stereotype that older workers are harder to train on new processes or technologies still holds sway, according to a 2012 Canadian Ipsos Reid poll.
Age discrimination is a reality — a full 38 per cent of older workers believe they have fewer workplace opportunities due to their age — especially when combined with 17 per cent saying they experience age discrimination, according to a 2013 poll of CARP members sponsored by Ceridian.
Ironically, 37 per cent of older workers believed eliminating mandatory retirement provisions across the country would worsen employer and workplace attitudes toward them, a troubling finding given that 55 per cent of them already are concerned about age discrimination in the workplace.
In soon-to-be published research by Ellie Berger titled Ageism at Work: Negotiating Age, Gender and Identity in the Discriminating Workplace, older workers seeking to take courses or attending workshops to update their skills — and avoid being classified as out-of-date — felt employers were reluctant to train them and did not want to invest money and time in training them:
“They look at people as a monetary investment. They invest a certain amount of time and effort in training a new recruit — the higher level of the recruit, the more expensive the time in training,” said one research participant.
“And they expect to get back 10 times their investment or else it isn’t worth it to them to hire them. So if they spend a year acclimatizing me, training me, getting me integrated into the system, then they would expect to get 10 years of profitable time out of me. Now, if I am 50 years old, they look at me as a poor prospect.”
These fears were borne out by the comments made by the employers in that study. They complained older workers were not up-to-date on new technologies, unaware they themselves had denied their workers the training opportunities.
So what are we to make of the erstwhile recommendations to “Value your older workers” and “Tips on recruiting and keeping older workers”? As the saying goes, “It takes only one psychiatrist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change.”
The implications for older workers are serious. More people are staying in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement age, many because they like what they are doing but also because they need the money or at least the health coverage. In the last 10 years, the proportion of older workers more than doubled from 295,000 in 2004 to 710,000 in 2014, according to Statistics Canada.
Growth of the 65-and-over labour force (140 per cent) outpaced the growth of the 65-and-over population (40 per cent). In 2004, only eight per cent of seniors were working compared to today’s 13 per cent.
If older workers can’t advance or lose their jobs, they have a much harder time getting a new job. Those aged 55 to 64 spend an average of 29 weeks unemployed after losing a job, and those aged 65 or older spend 32 weeks. Those aged 15 to 24 average 11 weeks unemployed, and the number is 23 weeks for those aged 25 to 54, according to 2012 research by Statistics Canada.
There are employers that have counteracted these prevailing attitudes and they proudly publicize it when they are named a top employer of older workers, with criteria such as active recruitment of new workers aged 40 and older and extended health coverage after retirement.
That is a good place to start — although it must be said the initiatives tend to focus on how to ease the workers out to retirement rather than help them build their careers while still on the job.
We are not yet in a position to catalogue best practices around training to older workers; rather, there is a growing body of lawsuits and applications alleging age discrimination from denying access to training opportunities, and with them the chance to advance.
So perhaps the right answer is to not treat older workers any differently from their younger cohorts when allocating training opportunities, and simply choose based on merit — not presumptions about their age.
The goal is to not just accommodate older workers but allow them to reach their full potential and, coincidentally, make for a more productive and more cohesive workplace. The boomer generation that is making its presence felt in today’s workplace amounts to 9.6 million Canadians and for the next 20 years, employers can reap the benefit of their contributions — or watch from the sidelines.
Susan Eng is executive vice-president at CARP in Toronto. For more information, visit www.carp.ca
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