Although legislation can be educative, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Employment Commissioner concluded “age-based stereotypes must be addressed by education and information as well as law and policy”. Many of my interviewees agreed. 1 They called for research to document discrimination and publicity about age discrimination cases which have been successfully prosecuted.
“We almost need court case to put the wind up employers.”
Information and Education
Such information could be used to advocate for the value of older workers and the benefits of employing them. To encourage less discriminatory thinking would require a concerted effort – “Not just a couple of commercials”. Apart from central government, my informants suggested that Age Concern, the EEO Trust, the Human Rights Commission 2 , NZ Institute on Management, Business NZ, chambers of commerce, employers’ associations and trade unions all might have a role. One called for an Age Discrimination Commissioner alongside the EEO Commissioner, as there is in Australia. Several called for government to take the lead.
There was a call for “champions” working against age discrimination within the business community, as well as in the older workforce itself. There is a role for HR managers (and the Human Resources Institute), with the potential to educate managers. Success depends on backing from senior management; careful and flexible implementation. But the high percentage of businesses employing fewer than 25 people increases the challenge. Government could help by modelling anti-age discrimination provisions in all public sector agencies. There are plenty of guide books available to help the process. In New Zealand these date back to 1999 when the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust published Benchmark your workplace progress on age. Ten years later the Human Rights Commission saw the need for a report, Valuing Experience: a practical guide to recruiting and retaining older workers. Public education could also help.
Case studies of employers who have gained business benefits in an age-diverse workforce could be persuasive, offering the carrot of improved performance as opposed to the stick of prosecution. In 2013 the UK Department of Work and Pensions published Employing Older Workers for an Effective Multi-generational Workforce.3 The case studies in this report are really interesting and include many household names.
1. McDonalds (yes, the hamburger people) have a Family and Friends contract which allows family members and friends working in the same outlet to share and cover each other’s shifts without prior notice. This can benefit people of all ages, including older workers with caring responsibilities and other commitments. There are examples of three generations working together cooperatively. Older workers can also reduce their hours when they need to, if family and friends can cover for them. Older workers are actively encouraged to apply for jobs at McDonalds and their numbers are increasing. In one example “Stella” was made redundant at 65 but has since been working 30 hours a week at McDonalds for ten years. She works mornings, and spends her afternoons with her grandchildren. “Bill” is 86 and works two six hour shifts a week. He really enjoys interacting with younger people and the public and his managers say he is very popular with the customers, none of whom would guess how old he is.
2. Marks and Spencer (of underwear fame, especially to my generation) have a third of their workers aged over 50 and their oldest employee was recruited at 80. The firm believes in embracing a diverse workforce reflecting their customer base. Employees are allowed to start drawing on their company pension at age 55 while continuing to work there, often on reduced hours. Workers of all ages have the same performance management and access to training. M & S have one of the lowest employee turnover rates in UK retail.
It is easy to see how such initiatives will help to increase understanding between the generations and work against age discrimination. There are examples in the report from a range of employment sectors, from home care to manufacturing, construction to financial services. All illustrate the advantages of employing older workers and fostering a mixed age workforce:
• Higher retention rates
• Less money spent on recruitment
• Reliability of older workers
• Low rates of absence from sickness (yes, even with older people)
• Value of older workers’ life experience
• Positive influence on younger workers – reports of improved maturity and behaviour
• Retention of key skills
• Transfer of valuable knowledge – “growing their own skills”
• Balance of skill mix between age groups
• Reflection of customer diversity
• Better continuity for customers
• Flexible work positive for performance.
There is more to be said about mixed age workforces, which I will get to next.
Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington
1 I am drawing on my findings from a research project “Making Active Ageing a Reality”, undertaken through the University of Waikato and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. http://www.waikato.ac.nz/nidea/research/recent-publications.
2 The Human Rights Commission has produced material for employers and workers, which sets out the legal requirements and outlines best practice. NZ Human Rights Commission, (2008) A Quick Guide to the ‘Good Employer’ Guidance from the EEO Commissioner.