Workplace discrimination comes in many forms and one of them is on the basis of age. Although a number of laws exist when it comes to guarding people against age-based discrimination, unfortunately, they are often breached or loosely enforced. In a recent article published in The Guardian, Dr. Emily Andrews, senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, reported that “nearly a million people between 50 and state pension age are economically inactive and were pushed out of work involuntarily.” In 2019, news came to light that IBM has dismissed nearly 100,000 older workers to free up resources for ‘fresh talent’.
The World Health Organization also finds that “older women face particular challenges in employment because of their sex and age”. A 2019 Forbes article points to research which shows that while men are viewed as more valuable and competent with age, women are viewed as less capable. This is not to undermine the discrimination experienced by men but to highlight that women are more vulnerable to be affected by ageist practices.
Regardless of gender, workplace ageism can have significant consequences on the lives of older people and on society at large. With increasing life expectancy, better healthcare and changing demographic structures, the idea of “retirement” is changing. People are working longer and better. Social and economic mobility contributes to the overall wellbeing of a person and plays a role in reducing a person’s risk of being affected by diseases of cognitive decline. Of course, mobility alone does not account for risk reduction. The workplace environment also has to be healthy and one that enables people to make better decisions for long-term wellbeing. Ageism is a barrier to that. It reinforces stigma against older people and discourages conversations about mental health. It can also emphasize negative perceptions about self and identity. A Financial Times article reports that a study by the Centre for Ageing Better (CfAB) found that “nearly half of those over 50 thought that their age would disadvantage them if they applied for a new job and a third thought there were fewer opportunities for training and progression with their existing company”. Furthermore, age-based discrimination is expensive. One source cites the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which reports that “lawsuits resulting from age discrimination have cost companies between $2.85 million to $250 million. Many of which are due to companies lowering age for retirement and disability pension benefits as well as laying off or mistreating older workers.” For people to continue to participate actively in the workplace, it is important that they feel safe, supported and empowered to progress in their careers.
To understand the indispensable value that older workers bring and how workplaces can be more inclusive we spoke with Ms. Kristina Langhammer who (at the time of writing) is a nursing manager at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. She leads a team of nurses specializing in thoracic surgery Ms. Langhammer has over a decade of experience in psychology and nursing and has worked in the field of elderly and dementia care among others. Her team at thoracic surgery consisted of operatory room nurses and approximately 45% of them were 60 years and older. She says that the experience and skill they have is unparalleled. Given the complexity of thoracic surgery, there are few “young” individuals who possess the level of competency required. Ms. Langhammer explains, “people think older workers are not proficient when it comes to technology but how is it possible to do something so complicated without using technology? In thoracic surgery, each step is crucial, time-sensitive and involves a series of delicate procedures which nurses need to carry out while assisting the surgeons. If stereotypes are to be believed then such a process would be impossible for senior nurses. But my team is proof that the only weakness is in our mindset.”
She continues, “It is so important for senior people to continue working, and for us to support them as well as we can. This is not only for their wellbeing but because we need their knowledge and expertise. Of course, fresh talent is important. However, if we have nobody with the competency to train them and lead by example, then the talent cannot be nurtured in the right way.”
How can we create a dynamic culture of inclusivity in the workplace?
“First and foremost, we need to reconsider how we talk about age. Employers need to advocate the use of inclusive language. For example, instead of saying “old nurse” we can say ‘senior or experienced nurse’. Of course, there will always be some differences in opinion and perception, perhaps based on age. However, we can work to understand them. Without understanding, there is fear: fear of inclusion and diversity, fear of trying something new and fear of sharing knowledge. We must work together to end that fear.
In one of my previous teams, there was a person with a diagnosis for early-stage dementia. However, it’s not as if all of a sudden receiving a diagnosis changed her knowledge or skill level. While she experienced some difficulties with memory, she was perfectly capable of doing her job. If we had given in to fear then we would have failed on our part as responsible employers. Instead, we tried to approach the situation holistically and plan what’s best for everyone.”
Our idea of ‘work’ and ‘value’ is constantly evolving. How can people prepare themselves to keep up with these changes?
“Education is the best way to empower ourselves. For example, now it is not enough to be a ‘nurse’. To differentiate yourself, you need to have a specialization. Given the vast number of resources available today, it is possible to constantly learn something new and stay updated. That is how we can keep up with change. However, people also need to be supported in using these resources in the best way possible.
In Sweden, for example, the government has been pushing for greater knowledge and competency within elderly and dementia care. The problem isn’t that the knowledge isn’t good enough. There just aren’t enough people who are skilled in the area. In addition, current education solutions aren’t scalable and cannot be used to quickly train a large number of people in best-practices. In a culture of digitization that is constantly evolving, we need something that is fast, efficient and adapts to our changing needs.
Finally, when it comes to ‘addressing gaps’, we must realize that they can always be filled. The world around us is changing but it is not a new phenomenon. Of course, people need time to adapt. However, if we use that as an excuse to exclude older people from the workforce then we are missing out on a huge pool of resources. Regardless of age, gender or other differences, it is always more valuable to focus on a person’s potential, their energy and build on that. There is no use of focusing on their deficiencies and weaknesses.”