Media coverage of the world’s aging population, especially in wealthy OECD countries, tends to be angst-ridden. Headline writers and researchers warn of a coming “silver tsunami,” detailing – often in apocalyptic terms – all the burdens that aging poses for society, from paying for pensions to managing rising health-care costs. When the discussion turns to older workers, an often-expressed fear is that automation and digitization will accelerate layoffs, swelling the ranks of those who have been cast adrift mid-career.
But all this handwringing must not be allowed to silence the case for optimism. Given that older workers have enormous productivity potential, employers should view them not as liabilities but as assets. Recent reports from the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and the OECD have shone a spotlight on the hundreds of billions of dollars of GDP that are lost annually as a result of economic inactivity among older workers – and these foregone gains will rise into the trillions in the coming decades. Moreover, reskilling advocates point out that training (typically older) employees for new tasks is often cheaper than laying off current employees and hiring new (typically younger) ones.
And yet, the world is collectively failing to create the more age-inclusive workplaces that would enable us to seize these opportunities. What needs to change to make that happen?
AGEISM BY THE NUMBERS
The first step, as always, is to admit that we have a problem and name it: persistent ageism. Consider this inconvenient truth. National statistics from around the world confirm that job seekers over the age of 45 comprise the bulk of the long-term unemployed. Recent global research from my organization, Generation, on the employment challenges confronting this cohort in seven countries (Brazil, India, Italy, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States) found the same result: 63% of the unemployed over the age of 45 have been out of work for more than a year, compared to just 36% of those aged 18-34.
This stark disparity is not simply an inevitable result of creative destruction grinding away at incumbent marketable skills. We surveyed four groups in our research: unemployed people over 45, employed people over 45 who successfully switched careers, jobless people aged 18-44, and hiring managers at a broad range of employers. Despite the massive differences in culture, GDP per capita, country size, and ethnic groups, we found the same resounding pattern.
Hiring managers in all seven countries admitted that they overwhelmingly prefer younger job candidates. Asked about candidates over 45 seeking to switch to new careers in entry-level or intermediate roles, employers perceived just 18% of them as having the right experience, 17% as application-ready, and only 15% as being a good cultural fit with their team. By contrast, when asked to choose among three demographic groups – 18-34, 35-44, and 45+ – employers expressed a strong preference for candidates in the demographic sweet spot of 35-44 (perhaps reflecting a natural affinity, since the bulk of those managers are themselves under 45).
But our research also offers a more encouraging finding: the same hiring managers reported that in the cases when they did hire job seekers over 45, 87% performed as well as or better than younger peers, and 90% were seen to have as much potential, or more, to stay with the company long term.
The persistence of deep-seated beliefs about this demographic cohort, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is a textbook definition of bias. No wonder that 71% of unemployed people over 45, and 53% of those who did manage to switch careers, declared that ageism was one of the biggest barriers they faced in finding a job.
Compounding the problem of ageism is the related issue of neglect. Few employment programs are geared toward older workers, and there is very little practice-based research on how to support unemployed people over 45 as they seek new careers. By contrast, youth training programs are legion, partly owing to the multiple failures and shortcomings that hamper the transition from education to employment in most countries. Especially after the Arab Spring and the international Occupy movement, many governments have emphasized support for young people as a means of ensuring political stability. But they would do well to recognize that neglecting older workers comes with its own costs.
CLOSING THE GAP
Automation and technological disruptions are driving a reskilling challenge that will require large shifts in investment priorities as well as creative new policies. But we don’t need planetary-scale macroeconomic interventions to make progress in combating ageism. Instead, we can think in terms of cascading micro-interventions, each designed to change behaviors among employers, policymakers, and individual workers.
To cast a brighter spotlight on the forgotten middle-aged career switchers, governments and multilateral organizations could move to publishing short- and long-term employment statistics (both employment participation and unemployment rate) with narrower age brackets, along with wage data. Data sets gathered by the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, or the OECD tend to combine a wide range of ages into a single bracket – typically 25-74 or 25-54 – to accommodate differences in national data. But this sprawling aggregation obscures the unique issues faced by the over-45 population.
Because what gets measured gets managed, the best solution would be to start reporting long-term unemployment by narrower five-year age brackets (for example, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54…), so that policymakers can spot the distinct problems faced by different age cohorts as they move through their working lives.
Governments also need to reimagine how they support unemployed mid-career people. Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, some have introduced wage subsidization as a tool to encourage employers to hire a broader diversity of candidates, including those attempting mid-career switches.
Our survey found, however, that across all seven countries, employers value government wage subsidization less than profession-specific training and relevant certifications. For example, 75% of employers value candidates graduating from a high-quality training and employment program that specializes in the profession for which they are hiring; and 73% of employers value candidates who can demonstrate their skills through an industry-recognized certification. In contrast, only 41% of employers value candidates because they come with government wage subsidization.
THE ABCS OF LABOR TRAINING
Governments keen to improve mid-career workers’ job prospects will need to use the full suite of tools at their disposal. This means, among other things, funding profession-specific programs that are multi-generational by design. The most robust learning environments are those where young people and mid-career workers learn together and from each other.
Moreover, because classrooms (be they in-person or virtual) must mimic the work environment to be effective, programs should be heavily practice-based, so that learners of all ages understand the nature of the job tasks. And as our survey findings indicate, programs also should conclude with an industry certification that employers value. Government wage subsidies can still play a role as part of this broader package, but they should not be relied on as a standalone lever.
Active intervention is especially needed to help those who face systemic barriers overcome their hesitation to seek training. Mid-career unemployed workers are generally the most in need of such services, and our survey strongly reaffirms that relevant training helps them obtain employment. Among workers over 45 who successfully switched careers, 74% told us that training was a critical factor.
By contrast, 58% of mid-career unemployed workers say they are not keen to participate in training. Among these, 63% had only a secondary education or less, and 70% were barely making ends meet financially. In short, those who need help most are least likely to access it, and this pattern was consistent across all seven countries we surveyed.
Addressing such reluctance requires altering the economic dynamics that currently make training a risky and costly luxury for the hesitant segment. We have seen this time and again in our own programs aimed at training and placing learners of all ages in new careers. The decisive factors that determine whether someone says a program is worth his or her time are care costs and availability (both for children and elders), transportation time and expense, the new profession’s wage level, and the guarantee of a job interview at the end of the process. In our global survey, 60% of training-hesitant over-45s told us that interview guarantees would lead them to participate in training, whereas 40% would be persuaded to participate if the training offered stipends for living expenses.
GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Above all, companies themselves need to take concerted action to close the gap between their stated aims and actual operations. When labor supply and demand don’t match, economists describe the situation as a market failure. But a persistent lack of integration of an organization’s hiring targets, recruiting sources and processes, and on-the-job support deserves another name: employer failure.
In recent years, a chorus of CEOs and industry coalitions have proclaimed their commitment to more inclusive hiring across an array of underrepresented communities. And yet, our survey found that unemployed people over 45 who self-identified as members of underrepresented communities still face an additional burden, participating in over 50% more interviews than their peers before getting a job offer.
A similar disconnect occurs when an employer commits to diversify job candidates’ profiles but then hunts for recruits in the same pools or continues to rely primarily on the traditional CV-based interview instead of using practice-based methods to understand whether a candidate can perform real job tasks. According to the AARP, half of global companies are not implementing the policies needed to support the recruiting and retention of a truly multigenerational workforce.
By changing their processes, organizations could reinforce the change in mindset needed to reach out to older workers. Take technology, where many employers worry that mid-career switchers lack digital savviness. We have seen this employer bias at work in Generation’s train-and-place programs. Despite having similar skills as their younger peers, our mid-career graduates take longer to be placed in jobs. Three months after completing the program, just 56% of our mid-career learners have secured jobs, compared to 83% for Generation graduates overall (at six months, the mid-career job-placement figure rises to 72%).
To increase the odds of placement, we have begun experimenting with employer interview formats that are more focused on demonstrating competency, while providing more personalized mentorship to boost learner confidence. We have also convened job-fair sessions where employers are blind to the learners’ ages and backgrounds until they see them in action presenting their portfolios.
We have found that this extra effort helps offset bias and leads to more decisions based on results. The good news, just as in our survey findings, is that mid-career graduates switching into new roles have strong job retention. Across 14 countries, 80% of our mid-career tech graduates continue to be employed six months after job placement, versus 86% for their younger peers.
INTO THE NEW NORMAL
A key shift hitting labor markets in the wake of the pandemic is the untethering of employment from geographic location. While the implications of this change are still materializing, we can already start to anticipate some of them.
On one hand, employers are increasing the pace of automation and deconstructing jobs into tasks that can be performed anywhere in the world – though it is an open question how employers will manage the changing job skills required of their employees, and what the impact on job volume and job quality will be. On the other hand, remote work can offer the job flexibility that mid-career workers often need to manage their family responsibilities. Some early surveys indicate that while all age groups face challenges in working from home, mid-career workers may be more adept at navigating them.
For harried human-resources departments at Fortune 500 companies, adding age inclusivity to all the other diversity demands they have been fielding can feel like piling another helping onto an already-full plate. What employers need to realize is that, in all these cases, they are not doing society a favor. They are doing themselves one.
The OECD has compiled ample evidence to demonstrate the positive impact of age diversity on the workplace and on productivity. It is time to move from making the case to acting on it. Those companies and countries best able to capture the gold that a silvering workforce has to offer will both increase social well-being and outperform their peers.
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