Diversity is now at the heart of many companies’ approach to the workforce.
Yet not all aspects of diversity receive equal air-time.
Look through listings of affinity groups in company coverage of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And what do you find? Gender. Tick. Sexuality. Tick. Ethnic identity. Tick. Tick. Tick.
You’ll be lucky.
Age rarely registers. And this is a puzzle. Let’s think about the issue.
What’s the issue?
For individuals, age is different from the other main measures of diversity. We all have an age. But it changes. Most males and females will keep their gender-identity from birth to death. The same goes for their ethnicity.
By way of contrast, our age is constantly growing. Last year’s new starter is a future year’s senior citizen. Unsurprisingly, an age cohort’s view of what the most important age-related issues are, change through time.
Employers must manage and respond to the particular concerns (and grievances) of each particular cohort. Yet true multinationals face a further age-related issue. The age structure in different countries varies widely. Let’s look at Zambia and at Japan.
Live births per woman
The age structure differs massively between the two societies. That has significant implications for marketing and the workforce.
A truly global company will need to have country-specific workforce strategies, and not just for age. It will be prudent for a multinational company to have a strategy of recruiting future senior leaders representative of the world as it will be. And that means young people from fast-growing economies. This is no mean challenge.
In many ways, the bigger challenge is to be found in the developed economies, with their declining birth rates and ageing populations. Greater life expectancy, the need to finance longer retirement, and shortages of skilled labour, are all drivers towards multigenerational workplaces in these economies.
How can these developed economy issues be addressed successfully? Here are some thoughts.
Taking stock – what’s the world like out there?
First the employer needs to take stock of the situation.
Start at the macro level.
Let’s look at the United States. In 2007 there were approximately 4.3 million births. By 2018 that number had fallen to 3.8 million. These individuals will be entering the labour market over the period 2025-36. Had the birth rate remained at 2007 levels, there would have been a further 5.7 million individuals entering the workforce. The effect is somewhat mitigated by immigration (both legal and illegal) into the US.
In the UK, the median age of the workforce in 2015 was 40. It is estimated to rise to 42.4. In other words, a far higher proportion of older people in the workforce overall. Many employees are delaying retirement and working beyond retirement age.
The shape of the workforce will vary considerably by employer and by sector. The challenges and opportunities will differ.
Getting started – shaping a strategy
The demographics place a premium on elder retention (and elder recruitment). The older section of the working population has had longer to build up their skills base. In a tightening labour market, those skills should be held on to.
Fortunately for employers, many older workers, certainly here in the UK, want to remain in employment for longer anyway. The percentage of those in their late 60s and early 70s is rising markedly.
On the other hand, the employer has to ensure that they are not institutionalising desk-blocking. That is to say, older workers declining to go and thereby preventing representatives of the next age cohort from occupying the most senior posts in the organisation.
That the tighter labour market ought to place young entrants into the workforce, is a strong bargaining position. Most particularly so if they are highly skilled.
Employers must shape an effective strategy to get young recruits in and motivate them to stay.
Grasping the opportunities – multigenerational flexibility
In 1980 I [Peter] began working at Esso Europe. The youngest person in our office was 20; the oldest nudging up to retirement on his 60th birthday. In my office today, the youngest age is broadly the same, but at 64 I am certainly not the oldest in our business.
The common feature across the whole age spectrum, is a desire for greater flexibility in working conditions and terms of work. A positive and informed response to requests for flexibility at both ends of the age spectrum is a must. Young workforce entrants no longer expect to work for one employer for life – so changing jobs (or having a period out of work) is no big deal. Older employees have the option of pulling up stumps and taking the pension. Being flexible is a wise choice for employers.
Particularly with the young, the employer has another weapon – being responsible. In a way that was just not true back in 1980, younger workers are seeking employers who are responsible, ethical, inclusive, diverse, and who take the challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss seriously. (And to a lesser extent, these help retain older workers, too.)
Greater informality in the workplace, and greater ease of communication, make mentoring possible and fruitful. And not just top-down mentoring. Older workers have experience to share. However, they also need to leverage the experience of younger members of staff, to increase their understanding of today’s world. A dividend to be drawn there for any employer.
So, get stuck in. Take age seriously as an aspect of diversity. Shape a strategy. Maximise the benefits gained from older and from younger workforce members.