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Advancing the value of older workers in HE workplaces: the case for ‘Elders’ not ‘Olders’

  • 31 July 2019
  • By Domini Bingham

A guest blog, kindly contributed by Dr Domini Bingham, Lecturer, Educational Leadership, Department of Learning and Leadership, UCL Institute of Education. She is the author of
Older Workforces – Re-imagining Later Life Learning(2019) .

The UK’s Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (2019) has reported on a shameful and costly neglect to those who do not participate in higher education. In its Foreword, the report emphasises that older workers too are worthy of attention where upskilling and reskilling are crucial in a changing labour market. Some of these older adults, including highly-skilled ones, form part of the higher education workforce and they will increasingly form part of an ageing workforce too. This reflects the ageing population and that the State Pension Age is rising. By 2020 it will be 66 for men and women, rising to 67 by 2028. 

We will be having those aged 70 working, with some doing so up to their 80s, representing up to five generations in the workplace. Even if people do not wish to stay on in work, they may be forced to.

This highlights a new challenge in workplace discrimination: ageism. Other discriminations have been challenged: disability; gender reassignment; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation; marriage and civil partnership; and pregnancy and maternity. But ageism has loitered, seemingly parked and invisible. It is the last taboo to be raised up for scrutiny in the diversity and equality mosaic.

An older worker is classed by the Office for National Statistics as being 50+ and some argue that 40 is the start of discrimination in the workplace, particularly for women. This is because women are far more likely to be working part time, to be in lower paid roles and to take on caring responsibilities where they are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion.

The Equality Act (2010) includes age as a protected characteristic, affording legal protection in the same way as it would other protected characteristics, but there is a danger that older workers are ‘managed’ out.

Moreover, the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution means that many jobs on the less skilled spectrum may be absorbed by automation, albeit with new ones created. More and more different skills will be required. Higher-level cognitive skills, emphasising teamwork, problem-solving acumen and intergenerational learning will be valued. In the UK, we have an enduring skills gap that successive governments have been challenged to address. The OECD have called for a greater policy effort and intervention in the UK to ensure all workers have opportunities to develop, maintain and upgrade their skills, thereby reducing the risk of joblessness.

Outdated age discrimination

However, society and organisations, including include higher education institutions, have been tardy in coming to the realisation of the challenge in the UK. Moreover, we are an ageist society, where ‘olders’ are not seen as ‘elders’, as they are in some places, such as in traditional African societies where elders have always played a role in maintaining peace and fostering reconciliation among communities. In the Muslim community, elders are often highly valued as a source of wisdom and experience and hold special status in the eyes of Allah. Thus, they are highly respected, their opinions heeded, and their wishes accommodated wherever possible.

Wisdom and experience are far too often not valued.

As the Augar report (2019) and the Altmann Report (2014) make clear, the key is in both retention and reskilling. In higher education there are six aspects that HE leaders can adopt to combat ageism in their institutions:

  1. Senior leadership should take a leading role in setting the agenda around eradicating ageism in their setting.
  2. Higher education institutions should be beacons of good practice as places of learning, sending out messages that being older is not a barrier to advancement in the workplace.
  3. Human resource strategy and practices, led from the top, should include models that include diversity and equality in its truest form (not just lip service), in organisational diversity management.
  4. Lifelong learning across the institution is crucial and as part of that it is essential that older workers do not feel vulnerable and overlooked for development. Spaces are needed to allow their voices to be heard when they often feel invisible and passed over.
  5. Types of learning should be crafted to how older workers best learn, which is through informal learning, coaching and mentoring. Intergenerational learning and knowledge sharing is also valued. Adopting policies for healthy workplaces are required.
  6. There is a role for strategic external and internal communication where systems such as websites and social media should include images of older workers, case studies of achievements and career advancement showing that older people are valued, not just ‘on the heap’

Of course, higher education workplaces cannot do battle alone over what is an entrenched societal issue. But they can be beacons of good practice and model exemplary behaviour. It is time to get age fluid around workplaces, and indeed society, recognising the value and validity and cost benefit of the older workforce in higher education.

© Domini Bingham

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