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The Great Unretirement and Combatting Age Bias in the Workplace

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8 min read
two elderly women discussing the news pension laws being introduced in the UK

The concept of retirement has had a complete overhaul in recent years. Retirement once allowed individuals to put their feet up and relax after 30 to 40 long years in employment. It was the fixed age every worker would clamber towards.

Yet, this previously well-defined line in the sand is becoming more blurry. People are choosing not to retire at all, or take a step back while keeping a toe in the workplace. Figures show that fewer people are retiring overall; 1.075 million people under the age of 65 were retired between February and April 2023, down from 1.180 million during the same period a year earlier. What was once seen as a linear journey from full-time work to complete leisure is now changing rapidly in what is being dubbed “the Great Unretirement”.

This new phenomenon is redefining the way individuals are approaching their golden years. In this article, we will explore the driving forces behind the “Great Unretirement”, analysing the financial realities that propel individuals back into the workforce and the societal shifts influencing this trend. We’ll also cover how employers can prevent ageism in the workplace and adapt to embrace and maximise the potential of older workers re-entering the workforce.

Younger employees are benefitting from the Great Unretirement through learning skills taught by older colleagues.

What Does Unretirement Mean and Why is it Increasing?

The Great Unretirement refers to a growing trend where retirees, or those on the cusp of retirement, are choosing to re-enter the workforce, shattering the traditional boundaries of retirement age. Individuals aren’t easing themselves in gently either. Although some are coming back part-time, many are signing up for full-time jobs after a period of retirement.

This trend isn’t being fuelled by one factor alone. There are many different driving forces putting a stop to the default retirement age and bringing the older generation back into the workplace. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why older employees are making a return:

  1. The Soaring Cost of Living

One of the key driving factors behind this trend is the escalating financial needs of pensioners. The Office for National Statistics found that 65% of those aged between 50 and 59 would consider returning to work for financial reasons. The cost of living continues to rise, putting significant strain on retirees’ fixed incomes. Many find their pension funds and savings are no longer enough to maintain their quality of life. This is leading the older generation to reconsider traditional retirement and seek alternative sources of income.

  1. People Living Longer

Modern medicine is advancing. These advancements mean that life expectancy is on the up. By 2045 in the UK, people are expected to live for more than 90 years (90 for men and 92 for women). When you look at this in respect of the typical 65-year-old retirement age, that means that people would be retired for almost one-third of their life. As a result, individuals are reconsidering the traditional idea of retirement as a brief period of relaxation and are seeking ways to stay engaged and productive during their extended golden years. Unretirement offers them a chance to remain active during their prolonged lifespans.

  1. A Need for Purpose

Retirement, as conventionally understood, often involved leaving the workforce to enjoy a leisurely life away from the responsibilities and pressures of work. However, many individuals find that this sometimes lacks the sense of purpose and fulfilment they once had in their careers. This desire for purpose is a powerful motivator for unretirement. Retirees can return to the workplace and continue to contribute their skills and knowledge developed over long careers.

  1. Tempting Packages

On top of that, there is a growing demand for specialised skills and expertise in certain industries. This results in employers offering attractive packages to entice retirees back into the workplace. Experienced professionals are finding themselves in high demand, and with their vast knowledge and seasoned abilities, they can negotiate flexible work arrangements, remote options, and even part-time roles that suit their needs. These tempting opportunities are enough to make retirees think twice about whether they want relaxation or a bit more money.

Defining Age Bias in the Context of the Workplace

We know that older workers are re-entering the workplace and, in an ideal world, this would only bring with it much-needed diversity and innovation. However, sadly, it’s not the case. An older workforce means that ageism can sometimes rears its ugly head.

Age bias, or ageism, is a form of discrimination that occurs when a particular age group is treated unfairly based on age. It involves making assumptions, holding stereotypes, or making decisions about someone’s abilities, skills, or suitability for a job solely based on a person’s age. Age bias can impact both older and younger workers, but it is most commonly associated with discrimination against older employees.

Age bias can manifest in various aspects of the employee lifecycle, including during recruitment and hiring processes, promotions, training opportunities, and day-to-day interactions among colleagues. Ageist attitudes can create a negative work environment, impacting employees’ morale and job satisfaction.

Age related discrimination is often seen during recruitment processes.

What is Positive Discrimination?

Positive discrimination, also known as “affirmative action”, is an approach taken by some organisations to address underrepresented groups, including workers of a certain age, by favouring them in recruitment or promotion opportunities. Whilst the intentions behind positive discrimination often have a legitimate aim of improving diversity, it can be a contentious issue.

Under the Equality Act 2010, positive discrimination is generally not allowed. As well as negative treatment, the Act prohibits treating individuals more favourably based solely on their age or other protected characteristics. However, the Act does allow for positive action in certain circumstances.

It is essential to differentiate between positive action and positive discrimination. Positive action focuses on levelling the playing field and promoting equal opportunities without granting unfair advantages. Positive discrimination, on the other hand, involves favouring a specific age group or any other protected characteristic over others, which is generally unlawful.

What Does Age Bias Look Like?

Age bias isn’t just judging someone’s ability to do the job based on their perceived age, be that an older or younger employee. It takes many forms and can appear in many areas of the workplace. Here are a few forms ageism can take:

Stereotyping

Age bias in the workplace often manifests through stereotyping. For older workers, there is a prevalent misconception that they may be less adaptable to processes, or it might even be perceived that older workers lack energy and enthusiasm. Such age-related stereotypes can lead to the perception that older employees are less productive or innovative, despite their wealth of experience. These stereotypes undermine the unique strengths and contributions of individuals in the workplace.

Limiting Opportunities for Older Workers

Older workers often find that their age limits career advancement opportunities due to age bias. They may be passed over for promotions or challenging projects based on the assumption that they are nearing retirement and won’t commit to long-term roles. This denies them the chance to showcase their abilities and grow professionally within the organisation. As a result, older employees may feel undervalued and demotivated, leading to decreased job satisfaction and potential disengagement from their roles.

Discriminating Based on Age in Recruitment

Age bias is particularly evident in recruitment processes. Job advertisements may subtly or overtly target specific age groups, inadvertently excluding older applicants from consideration. Some employers may prefer hiring younger candidates, assuming they are more technologically savvy or will stay with the company longer. Older applicants may also face age-related questions during interviews or encounter assumptions that they won’t adapt to the company’s culture. These practices not only perpetuate age bias but also lead to a less diverse and inclusive workforce.

Direct versus Indirect Age Discrimination

Research shows that one in six people have been the victim of age discrimination at work, either directly or inadvertently. But what’s the difference between direct and indirect discrimination? Let’s take a look at two examples in context:

Direct Age Discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs when an employee is treated less favourably based on their age.

Example:

Imagine a scenario where a company is restructuring its workforce and decides to lay off several employees to cut costs. Among the employees being considered for redundancy, there’s an older worker, John, who has been with the company for over 20 years and consistently received positive performance reviews. On the other hand, a younger employee, Abby, has been with the company for only two years and her performance record isn’t quite as good.

Despite John’s long and successful time at the company, the management team decides to lay him off while retaining Abby solely based on their ages. The company believed John would retire soon and Abby would stay with the organisation longer. This action constitutes direct age discrimination because John lost his job due to his age compared to Abby, who was younger.

Indirect Age Discrimination

Indirect discrimination happens when a workplace policy, practice, or criterion inadvertently disadvantages a particular age group.

Example:

Imagine a company launches a leadership training programme exclusively for recent graduates with less than two years of work experience. While the initiative appears to be open to all employees based on their tenure, it inadvertently discriminates against older employees. These more experienced workers are automatically excluded, regardless of their skills or potential.

This scenario constitutes indirect age discrimination, as the training course’s eligibility criteria indirectly disadvantages older employees by excluding them based on their length of service. Even though the programme is open to all based on a seemingly neutral factor, it disproportionately affects older workers who are beyond the defined time frame.

Legal Protection From Discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 makes it clear that all stages of employment, from recruitment and hiring to terms and conditions of employment, training opportunities, promotions, and dismissals, should be free from age-related bias. Under this Act, age is recognised as a protected characteristic, and it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees, job applicants, or workers based on their age. Employers are prohibited from treating individuals less favourably due to their age or subjecting them to any discriminatory treatment based on age-related assumptions or stereotypes.

Possible Consequences of Age Discrimination

If an employer is found guilty of unlawful discrimination, they could face several consequences:

Financial Penalties: Age discrimination could lead to, unsurprisingly, an age discrimination claim. The employment tribunal has the authority to award compensation to the victim of age discrimination. The amount of compensation may vary depending on the severity and impact of the discrimination experienced by the individual.

Reinstatement or Reemployment: In some cases, the tribunal may order the employer to reinstate or reemploy the victim of age discrimination if they were unfairly dismissed or subjected to other adverse actions.

Company Reputation: Besides legal repercussions, employers found guilty of age discrimination may also suffer from reputational damage, affecting their brand image and also employer brand.

Two older employees have decided against early retirement to continue working in jobs they feel passionate about.

How Can Organisations Combat Age Bias?

Age discrimination in the workplace is a concerning issue. Organisations shouldn’t sit back and hope that ageism isn’t happening in their workplaces – there should be much more of a proactive effort to combat any potential discrimination arising. Here are some ways to create an inclusive and age-diverse work environment:

1. Educating and Raising Awareness: Employers can conduct training programmes and workshops to educate employees about the detrimental effects of age bias and raise awareness about the value of age diversity in the workplace. As a result of workplace training, individuals can challenge their own biases and contribute to a more inclusive culture.

2. Standing up for What’s Right: It is crucial to encourage open conversations about age-related biases and challenging stereotypes when they arise. Employees at all levels should feel empowered to speak up against age discrimination and advocate for fair treatment for colleagues of all ages.

3. Creating Age-Inclusive Policies: Employers should review their policies and practices to ensure they are free from age bias. Implementing age-inclusive recruitment, training, promotions, and performance management policies helps promote fairness and equal opportunities for all employees.

4. Promoting Flexible Work: Offering flexible work options, such as part-time arrangements or remote work, can benefit employees of different age groups. This approach recognises that individuals may have varying personal circumstances and preferences whilst still contributing meaningfully to the organisation.

5. Shifting Leadership Mindset: A leadership-driven mindset shift is essential to combat age bias. Executives and managers must lead by example, creating a culture that values the contributions of employees at all stages of their careers. Inclusive leadership practices appreciate the diverse skills and experiences of older workers and understand that age diversity can drive positive change.

6. Championing Cross-Generational Collaboration: Encouraging cross-generational collaboration and teamwork can break down barriers and help employees learn from one another’s unique perspectives. Teams that leverage the collective knowledge and experiences of all age groups are more likely to be innovative and successful.

7. Providing L&D for All: Learning and development opportunities should be available to employees of all ages. Instead of solely focusing on mentoring younger workers, organisations should provide training and skill development programmes that benefit employees at various career stages.

Amy is a knowledgeable People professional with over a decade of experience across a variety of private and public sector organisations. With a particular interest in employee engagement, Amy is an advocate for employee-centric approaches in all areas of HR which is reflected in her writing. Before a career in HR, Amy read English and Creative Writing at university and later studied for her CIPD, HR Management.

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