Reflections of an age and work consultant

The world of work is changing!

Image: Firdaus Roslan - Unsplash

Over the past five years countless reports have speculated on the future of work, most exploring the impact of the “fourth industrial revolution’. A parallel line of research and commentary over the last decade has discussed the impact of the demographic changes taking place in the workplace as the baby boomers move into a phase where it had been expected they would be exiting from the workforce. Having worked in the field of age and work as a practitioner, commentator and researcher for close to 10 years in Australia and New Zealand some interesting and shuttle shifts are taking place. Each brings challenges requiring fresh thinking, new research and innovative policy and practice. Invited to reflect on the global trends in age and work I am seeing I briefly explore four trends.

1. Longevity is changing everything (for all)

For some reason every article, scholarly and populist, on population and workforce ageing starts by reciting the numbers and describing the demographic shifts taking place. Important when are discussing population trends and engaging in planning and policy thinking, but hardly relevant to the individual as they age. I hear people ask of the numbers “so what?”  A shift is taking place with an increasing focus on the impacts and opportunities of longevity for individuals as they age? We are on the whole living longer, there Is no need to repeat the numbers. However, calling these so-called extended years a “longevity bonus” as many still do, suggests that what we have is extra years tacked on to the end. This conceptualisation of longevity fuels “tsunami” thinking and underpins injunctions that we need to “prepare for an ageing population” or “manage an ageing workforce”. The inference been that what we will experience is many more older people being older longer and they will need to be managed. Longevity, in fact, presents opportunities for individuals across all life stages, not just for people in the latter phases of their lives. Implications in terms of relationships, work, leisure, financing living across the life course, participation in education and training and ensuring health and wellbeing. Understanding longevity in this way also invites us to move away from using age-based categories such as “older people”, “older workers”, the “65 plus”, the “elderly” etc. Inherently people as they reach each age category reject membership of the groups so loved by the media, marketers, demographers, politicians and policy makers. Rather let’s take a life course approach and talk about people as they age, a process that is universal and consider the implications and opportunities of ageing at all life stages.

2. Rethinking retirement

For increasing numbers "retirement" as a final exit from paid work is not the destination they dream of. For others it remains the goal and for others a necessity. This presents a number of complex policy and practice challenges. However, conceiving of work and retirement as separate stages in the course of life no longer accurately mirrors the reality for a substantial proportion of adults as they age. Wedded to a binary view of life stages, the notion of “unretirement” has been appropriated by the media to explain the phenomena of people who have “retired” and are returning to paid employment. Seen as a growing trend and as somewhat regrettable it is suggested that this is primarily occurring for financial reasons or because people are bored. Such a commentary is predicated on the view that retirement is an entitlement, something all aspire to and that people should as of right transition from work in their sixties. Longevity is forcing us to rethink the linear life stage model that holds up retirement as the destination dreamed of, planned for, saved for, transitioned to and embraced. When reviewing employer’s policies through the lenses of life stages, we no longer regard “transition to retirement” programs as best practice. Rather what we advocate for is programs and policies that assist people to transition to what is next for them. Transition to retirement programs encourage linear “destination” thinking and potentially invite dishonesty into the employment relationship. For many “retirement” is not what is next but they play the game. Why not have honest conversations where we talk in the workplace about what is next, provide life stage education and planning and encourage people as they age to explore and create pathways to what is next for them?

3. An emerging ageism

Ageism is real, it permeates society and is present in our workplaces however this is a contentious issue and not as straight forward and simplistic as some advocates would have us believe. While it is generally agreed that those most exposed to ageism in the workplace are younger and older workers seeking employment, I worry about a new form of ageism emerging that potentially impacts all.

If we agree with the definition that ageism is the holding of stereotypes, prejudice, or discriminating against (but also in favour of) people because of their chronological age, then what are we to make of the increasing use of generational categories that attribute to all born within a designated time period a common set of characteristics irrespective of gender, ethnicity, country of origin, or socio-economic status? Putting to one side the fact that there is no scholarly research, that I have seen, that supports the existence of distinct generational categories, is it not ageist to create a category of the “other” based on age and then attribute to them both negative and positive stereotypes? “Baby Boomers are…”, “Gen X is…”, “The Millennials are…” Really, are they? Does this not fuel division and exclusion? Dividing people by age – any age – is in my view ageist. While we are becoming more comfortable calling out racism, sexism or homophobia, are we willing to call out ageism and actively reject the use of unsubstantiated categories and labelling? The evidence is we are not. In fact some advocacy organisations and members of the human resources profession are unwittingly subscribing to the use of generational categories and potentially fuelling ageism.

4. Shift from Age Friendly to Age Inclusiveness

The upsurge in interest in age-friendly communities is to be celebrated as it reflects a shift in the way we think and talk about older people. But is being age-friendly sufficient? Or is it time to push our actions just a little further? Interestingly while the WHO framework includes as one of its eight pillars civic participation and employment they do not include the creation of age inclusive workplaces. In pursuing an age-friendly agenda, should we just focus on older people, ensuring their participation is maximised and they are valued and respected within society? In fact, what do we mean by being “friendly”? Is it an idea that resonates across all generations, or is it reserved just for older people? A number of years ago there was a discernable shift from a focusing just on diversity in the workplace to including inclusion. A shift is again taking place with greater emphasis now being placed on inclusion by leaders in the field. PwC 2015 research reports that of global companies they surveyed only 8 percent of those with diversity and inclusion strategies included any actions in respect of age. If the mantra of the diversity and inclusion movement is the right to bring our best selves to work, then a focus on age inclusion at all life stages is required.Research undertaken, drawing on Harvard’s Project Implicit data demonstrates that while progress has been made in addressing both explicit and implicit bias’s over the last 10 years in areas such as sexuality, race, and skin-tone attitudes, very little progress has been made in addressing implicit bias in respect to age and disability.

[Source: Geoff Pearman, Partners in Change,]