Take a moment to think about a typical worker in the technology sector. If you’re like most people, the chances are you thought of a young person; male, not quite in their thirties, and in casual dress – wearing jeans, trainers and a hooded jumper, perhaps. Now ask yourself, what does this mental image reveal about your preconceptions of such a workplace?
This stereotype of the youth-hoodie individual is something that has developed over the last decade, and mainly because it has an element of truth about it. Consider the average age of the Big Tech giants. At Google the average age maxes out at 30 years old. And that’s one of the oldest median ages. At Facebook and LinkedIn, the average age doesn’t quite make it to 30 (being 28 and 29, respectively). While at AOL, the average age is a staggeringly small 27 years old.
The unchallenged ageism narrative
Such a universally young workforce has prompted, naturally, accusations of ageism in Big Tech companies. But accusations aren’t needed. Influential leaders have overtly admitted ageism on the public stage. Such as Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, did when he declared that ‘young people are just smarter’.
There is a general suspicion that ageist undercurrents are running through both engineering and technology, favouring the ultra-young and millennials at the expense of the older generations;wWith some of the worst generation divides manifesting in areas to do with computer coding.
And yet very little is being done to tackle ageism. This unenthusiastic approach has not gone unnoticed by Paul Owen, the director of operations at Age Diversity Forum. Who referred to ageism as ‘the biggest area of bias [that currently exists] receiving the lowest level of attention’.
Why ageism is unsustainable
If ageism is being ignored in contemporary society, it cannot be ignored forever. For the simple fact that we live in an ageing society. Many societies all over the world, including Western Europe and China, will soon enter into a period of irreversible ageing and population decline – unless something drastic is done.
So engineering and technology companies must start recruiting more of a workforce out of their twenties. And even in their fifties or older. And this change will have to happen quickly.
According to figures compiled by the UK government, almost one third of all employees will be 50 years or older within the next five years. And by the end of the decade, those in the over-50 bracket will actually make up a majority of the workforce demographic in Britain.
Engineering companies won’t even have to wait that long. Despite a preference for younger recruitment, British engineering has been in a state of recruitment crisis for years. With more people leaving than entering. Some engineering sectors (such as mining and quarrying) already have average workforces just shy of 45 years. With the wider average age for the entire engineering sector rapidly catching up.
This looming tidal wave of older workers is already eroding the foundations of our ageist societal structures. As a result, some companies are already starting to take notice and act.
One notable example is the insurance company Aviva, which conducted internal surveys of its employees and especially those approaching retirement. What they found was, about half of the people edging close towards retirement did not want to. Tellingly, a lot of them thought they had to retire; that they felt a soft pressure on them in the work environment to do so. One company-wide survey found that almost half of the older staff members though ageism was a problem. Which was accompanied by other attitude surveys that seemed to suggest older workers were more motivated to work harder than their younger colleagues.
Ageism and the economy
Reflections like Aviva’s with their surprising conclusions are helping to highlight ageism in everyday society and how we can change our attitudes towards it.
And in 2017, the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions released a report to try to do just that. Titled: ‘Fuller Working Lives’, this government paper identified what it called the ‘mission million’. That is, retired workers who would gladly return to work if there was support enabling them to do so.
That is, a million people with a lifetime of work experience and corporate memory, who could make a real difference. As mentioned above, given the huge recruitment shortfall in British engineering, this missing million could be an industry’s lifesaver.
Some engineering companies have already taken the initiative to tackle ageism, by making the effort to deliberately recruit older workers. One example being the company Tideway, which is currently working on building ‘super sewers’ in London. Since 2015 they have offered ‘returner’ incentives to get retired or older-aged groups back within their ranks.
Another example is the company Landmarc, which now already has a majority workforce aged 55 years and over; through a unique implementation of flexible hours’ contracts.
Putting an end to ageism
In its 2017 ‘Independent Review of the State Pension Age’ report, the government suggested that every employee over the age of 45 should be given the opportunity to undergo a ‘Midlife MOT’. This brilliant idea flew under the radar at the time.
But of the few companies that introduced it – Aviva being one – the result was a near universal uptake amongst applicants. This suggests that employees approaching their middle-ages are already acutely aware that their age and ability are becoming factors, and that they are keen to address them.
There is no universal or even standardised way to produce a Midlife MOT just yet. Aviva conducted theirs by way of individual consultations, hosting seminars, granting specialist advice and additional training resources. The idea behind all of them being to act as stepping stones, constructing a new foundation from which to plan the next stages of their lives. Both on a personal level and at work.
And though Midlife MOTs sound good, they aren’t the only solution. Another idea is to change how we view apprenticeships. Again, take a moment to think of an apprentice and you are likely to think of a teenager. But actually, about 50% of teenagers are over the age of 25. And increasingly, more apprentices are aged 50 and older.
Older apprenticeships can be really valuable to older workers, especially as they transition out of full-time working. They can present great opportunities to develop new skills, and these skills can be orientated to areas in the job market where there are skills shortages.
Finally, even the littlest of changes can have big consequences in the struggle against ageism. Making job listings more age-friendly, for example, by removing loaded buzzwords and replacing them with more inclusive ones. Such as replacing words that mention ‘graduate jobs’, or ‘looking for recent graduates’. Even if there is no intention to discriminate on the basis of age, slip-ups like this could put off your new best employee from making an application. And all because of a number.
Eliza Cochrane writes for Akramatic Engineering.