The Australian Seniors Series: Seniors in the Workplace

It was the acclaimed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who took a sobering look at Western society’s preoccupation with youth, and said, “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilisation does not really harbour a concept of the whole of life.” He was right. Even in Australia, it’s said we have been culturally conditioned to hold negative stereotypes about “old people” by the time we are as young as six. And like many unjustified preconceptions or prejudices, they can be hard to shake even as we grow older ourselves. Such is the pervading myth of obsolescence amongst over-50s in the modern workplace.

As part of our ongoing national research into uncovering the transformative experiences that Australia’s Baby Boomer demographic are currently negotiating, we surveyed 1,000 Australians about employment after the age of 50 – particularly around the subjects of perceived ageism in the workplace versus the real, quantifiable value they bring to their job, as well as their relationships with Gen Y co-workers. And the results might both surprise and galvanise…

Are Aussie workplaces becoming ageist?

Consider this: more than one in three people over-50 (35%) have no choice but to apply for new work or embark upon a career change later in life – half of them because they need the money. So, factoring in what we know about Western culture and its tendency to marginalise those who are no longer in the rosy-cheeked flush of youth, this statistic is all the more of a concern. Why? Because, even at a glance, the results of our survey over whether ageism is a factor in attempting to re-enter the workplace are quite disheartening. Perceived or otherwise, nearly half of all Baby Boomers surveyed (47%) feel age discrimination is behind why they may have been rejected for employment. Not only that, but over a third (36%) talked themselves out of even applying for certain roles because they believed they wouldn’t even be in the running. This could also be why 60% of those surveyed admitted re-employment required overcoming certain obstacles – and in fact, over a quarter (27%) described those barriers as “significant”. For example, nigh on half of over-50s (49%) said finding a new job took them over six months, while one in five (22%) struggled for over three years before landing work.

Even once Baby Boomers do score that elusive gig, the ageism doesn’t necessarily end there. Nearly a third (30%) report experiencing discrimination over their age while at work – for example, 21% of over-50s express annoyance at obvious age-based prejudices over their capability to perform certain tasks or roles. The reasons most cited for this age discrimination is that Baby Boomers are seen as either overqualified (45%), they somehow lack the right “company fit” (30%) or that they aren’t tech-savvy enough (24%). Not only that, but even within such a potentially stultifying work environment, 42% of over-50s feel trapped in their job. Why? Because they have genuine fear that their opportunity to swap careers or to climb the ladder have long since passed them by.

Baby Boomers provide the balance every workplace needs

So that was the bad news. The good news is that, in the real world, Baby Boomers present any potential employer with not only a lot of value but also excellent opportunities to enrich and balance the skill-sets of their younger team members. For example, amongst those surveyed, while only 9.8% saw over-50s as being strong in their technical skills compared to 26.9% for Gen Y employees (a statistic that perhaps isn’t that surprising), the Seniors definitely won out over the Millennials when it came to other desirable workplace attributes – i.e. ranking higher in their general people skills, in their ability to collaborate and work within a team, and in their aptitude for innovation and solving problems.

Part of why over-50s might also be regarded as an asset to any contemporary workplace is that business experts now believe communication and collaboration to be key drivers in any successful business – and sure enough, Baby Boomers predilection for communicating face-to-face as opposed to email, telephone, Skype or chat software is something of a benefit. In fact, when it comes such subject matters as personal issues, performance feedback, difficulties or support issues, and even complaints, the split of over-50s who will elect to talk to someone in the flesh over other means of communications ranks in the 80–90 percentile – compared to Gen Ys, who are usually much more content with email and phone (even for personal issues and problems). This preference for upfront face-to-face communication stands Baby Boomers in good stead.

The Australian Seniors Series: Seniors in the Workplace (infographic)

Seniors rank higher than Millennials in adaptability, reliability and displaying ideal workplace values

Whether it’s on account of the fact that the Baby Boomer generation have experienced a succession of major political, cultural, sexual and technological upheavals over their years is hard to say, but a general adaptability is also seen as a virtue of older employees. Not only that, it is actually the Gen Y worker who professes to disliking change in the workplace most: 64% of Millennials ticked the “I hate any form of change at my job” box most compared to only 56% of over-50s. And sure, while it’s a general truism that over-50s might be type-cast (either by themselves or others) as being slightly technologically handicapped – 77% of those surveyed admitted to being slower at embracing new tech skills, versus 91% of Millennials who tend to pick them up much faster – Baby Boomers are actually more likely to seek out new training opportunities to address these and other shortfalls. Whereas only 27% of older workers fessed-up to avoiding learning new skills, slightly more of the younger employees (31%) said they also dodged doing additional training wherever possible.

Another reason to reconsider older employees is a debunking of the myth they are less productive because of health issues. Statistically speaking at least, Baby Boomers are actually three times less likely to use most of their sick leave each year than Gen Ys – and in fact, Millennials throw twice as many sickies compared to Baby Boomers each year (6 days vs 3 days per year).

Job mobility is yet another factor which paints over-50s in a positive light, especially given that continual employee turnover costs are a concern for businesses. The reality is, Baby Boomers are a safer bet when it comes to retention – over a five-year stretch, of those surveyed, Gen Ys changed jobs twice as much as the over-50s (once vs twice on average). What’s more, Baby Boomers are half as likely to leave their current job in the next year – only 24% of over-50s think they might move on soon, compared to almost half (47%) of Millennials.

It’s also probably no surprise that in the realm of employee values and motivators, the over-50s might be more attractive to prospective employers than Gen Ys. Generally speaking, Baby Boomers are principally motivated by such things as being satisfied by their job (71%), finding their work engaging (57%) and a positive workplace culture (41%). Alternatively, Millennials are more inwardly focused – responding best to such drivers as better pay (52%), an ideal work-life balance (42%) and future career opportunities (42%). Perhaps most telling of the difference in the two age-groups, depending on how you choose to interpret the words, is that while Baby Boomers are more than twice as likely to cite “integrity” (i.e. an ideal practised for the benefit of all) as their key workplace value, Gen Y are more likely to cite “respect” (something which recognises and benefits them first).

Grey is the new black – it’s time Aussie workplaces caught on

The reality is the over-50s demographic amongst Australian employees is here to stay. And that’s a really good thing. Three out of ten Baby Boomers surveyed say they intend to work beyond the age of 65 – the majority due to financial need (62%), but also those who simply enjoy working (56%) and others who want to stave off boredom (44%). Unsurprisingly though, a high percentage (i.e. 90% and higher) of over-50s believe the following issues need to be talked about and addressed if the two different generations are to continue working together collaboratively moving forward.

First, the older one gets, the harder it is to find a job.

Secondly, older employees are clearly undervalued, and that workplaces without the right distribution of senior worker will come to miss the value they can bring – furnothermore, a lot of Baby Boomers (89%) believe that the workplace will face negative impacts once they retire.

Optimistically, though, the vast majority of over-50s and Millennials believe they can complement each other extremely well at work (90% vs 87%) and most enjoy working together (77% vs 76%).

So, isn’t it high-time we celebrated having the right amount of ‘senior-ity’ in the room? The figures seem to speak for themselves.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of the Australian Seniors Series… A report on seniors, by Seniors.

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