From education to employment

Is age just a number? The problem of age bias in recruitment

John-Claude Hesketh, Managing Partner at global executive search firm Marlin Hawk

The plight to increase workplace diversity has gained incredible momentum amongst companies of all sizes and sectors over the past decade. What’s more, we are seeing business leaders working harder than ever to tackle the issue right from the start of the hiring process.

There is still a long way to go, but while we drive the diversity conversation forward, there remains an entire demographic we are in danger of leaving out of the picture even though they make up over 30% of the UK’s workforce: the over 50s.

According to the Chartered Management Institute, the UK will need “1.9 million new, well trained and highly skilled managers” in key leadership positions by 2024. Yet recent government research has revealed that there are up to one million individuals in the 50-64 age bracket whose potential to fill these roles are going unrealised, despite their ambitions to get back into the workplace.

In an increasingly digital age it is only natural for these patterns to emerge as organisations look to entice the younger CEOs and CTOs, believing that because of their age they can drive innovation, and focus more on making workplaces ‘Millennial friendly’. However, this is not necessarily the case, and it is becoming clear that things need to change in order for us to truly begin tackling the issue of age bias from the top down.

A report issued last month by The Women and Equalities Committee explicitly blamed Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission for failing to enforce age discrimination laws. However, businesses and executive search firms have just as big a role to play in solving the issue.

In spite of the dismal outlook, we are already seeing the dial begin to swing towards reforming the current system, as slowly increasing amount of employers are beginning to realise the value of older workers.

Over the next two to three years we will actually start to see a surge in demand for more seasoned leaders within the 50 plus demographic, which is hugely promising.

Employers can take advantage of the more pragmatic mindset and approaches that leaders within this demographic tend to have as a result of years of experience within more historically traditional sectors such as risk and finance. Such methods can greatly benefit younger senior management teams and lend an alternative perspectives and new angles to creating solutions.

But first, the perception needs to change, industry leaders and their executive search partners need to help accelerate this shift.

More business leaders need to realise the diversity of experience and knowledge of those who have been in the workforce for decades can bring to the table. These individuals will have either established or operated within businesses during various cycles of boom and bust, and will hold a wealth of knowledge that remains very pertinent and relevant today.

While it’s easy to believe the prevailing narrative that younger talent automatically guarantees an inflow of innovation, fresh approaches and therefore success, appointing such young hires over more experienced veterans does not always pay off. In fact, young workers are more likely to change roles and companies more frequently, according the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, but businesses need the stability and ‘job loyalty’ that older generations typically display.

As well as hiring an age-diverse workforce, businesses can also invest in upskilling their existing employees over the age of 50. Recent insights from Aviva found that a large proportion of over-50s in today’s workforce feel they do not have the support they need from their employers to realise their career goals.

A report released earlier this year by the Centre for Ageing Better found that investing in better support systems for older workers to remain in ‘good quality employment’ could deliver a boost of up to £3bn for the economy.

As the notion of a job for life disappears, reskilling at all stages and ages will be key to delivering growth.

While it is proving more difficult for certain demographics to break into emerging markets – chiefly digital and technology – this needn’t be the case. Even so, it will also hold true that, in certain critical roles and industries, experience will trump innovation and blue sky thinking. Financial services, managing risk, are just a few examples.

Ultimately addressing diversity issues should focus on hiring the right person for the role, no matter their age or where they are in the world.

John-Claude Hesketh, Managing Partner at global executive search firm Marlin Hawk

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