No better time: Why age diversity is the key to solving staff shortages post-COVID

age diversity

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Businesses and recruiters are reporting a significant candidate shortage in a wide range of roles at levels not experienced for many years. Many workplace analysts and recruiters are predicting 2021 will be one of the toughest talent wars in over 10 years.  

The latest SEEK Employment Report, released in March this year, recorded the highest number of jobs posted since 1998 and the lowest number of applications since 2012. 

Multiple factors have contributed to the situation. Many resulted from the pandemic, some were unexpected, and others are due to market and business growth. 

Numerous solutions have been thrown at the problem, including transforming hiring processes, employer branding and candidate experiences. But a missing link remains, and that link is age diversity.    

I guarantee a large number of roles have not been filled due to ageism and stereotyping. And they are unlikely to be closed anytime soon without knocking age bias on the head. Smaller businesses and startups will also face additional challenges in competing with larger employer brands.   

There is a rich supply of skilled and aligned candidates over 45 who are being ignored. This disregard would be laughable if it wasn’t so heinous. It’s illogical to lump every member of a generation into the same box as there is no empirical evidence of the correlation between age and value. Doing so is half-baked and commercially irresponsible.  

Dr Catherine Rickwood, a leading age diversity consultant, says “ageism in the workplace is incredibly pervasive with a blinkered approach to recruitment and training. Excluding older people from the candidate pool negatively impacts team thinking, creativity and the bottom line”.

State of play

There is an abundance of research on the economic and social impact of ageism, along with the benefits of age diverse workplaces including the recent Ageism is a global challenge: UN report from the World Health Organisation.

The report is damning of how the response to control COVID-19 has unveiled widespread ageism of both older and younger people who are negatively stereotyped in public discourse and social media.   

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO said:

“As countries seek to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we cannot let age based stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination limit opportunities to secure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere”.

The 2021 AHRI/Human Rights Employing Older Australians report found 25% of businesses don’t have age diversity practices, with 50% admitting a reluctance to recruit older workers. The definition of an older worker has also dropped from 61-65 in 2018 to 51-54 in 2021. 

AHRI also found “over two thirds of organisations seldom or never undertake bias training and of those which do, only 50% include age bias”.

I personally observe a perplexing absence of ageism in many ‘diversity and inclusion’ conversations and initiatives. Gender takes centre stage, followed by race and disability, excluding age.

It’s illegal to discriminate against age and there are many powerful voices and outstanding organisations advocating against ageism.  

But the truth is not much has really changed and substantial movement is now critical.    

Hire who I am

Media commentator and EveryAGE Counts ambassador Jane Caro shared: 

“When you discriminate against age you are shooting your future self in the foot. Every older person wants to be taken seriously and treated as an individual”.

Ensuring candidates are taken seriously and evaluated as an individual on merit is core to nullifying hiring biases. I spoke with two leaders recruiting in this context and who consider age irrelevant.

Stuart Dalrymple, general manager of healthtech startup Kāhu, has an expanding tight knit global team of all ages up to late 50s. His selection criteria focuses on having a curious mind (in and out of the workplace), an ability to deal with ambiguity, and high ethical standards of refusing to cut corners or compromise.  

Heather Cook, APAC vice president of SaaS organisation Seismic, has hired hundreds of high performing sales and customer service staff in their 20s to 60s over her career. Her criteria is whether the person is a doer and gets off their butt, has a nose for client research and solutions, and is hardwired to constantly learn and share knowledge.

The takeaway from the above is to hire with solid EQ and IQ, alongside a commitment to the needs of the role unfettered from bias.

The recruiter lens

As an ex-recruitment agency owner, I know some recruiters are willing to push back on ageist and biased job briefs. I was one who certainly did but many won’t due to fear of losing a placement or due to their own ageist beliefs. 

Disturbingly I found some clients over 45 would discriminate against their own generation, but that’s for another article. 

I approached many recruiters to gain their feedback but few were willing to contribute. One encouraging story came from Hani Jaber at Morgan Consulting. At 32 he abhors all forms of bias and fearlessly encourages clients to look inwards to hire without age prejudice, placing candidates below and well over 50.    

Some companies are definitely hiring differently in 2021. Louise McCallum of SCC Talent told me clients (through necessity) are willing to review and hire anyone with the right skills irrelevant of age. Placing many candidates over 50 this year, she admits that before COVID-19, securing an interview for anyone over 45 was difficult.

Dr Rickwood urges recruiters to “question their attitudes and beliefs about what candidates over 45 can and cannot do. Recruiters and employers must be curious in challenging the notion that people over a certain age are a cultural mismatch because of an existing younger workforce”. 

We must all take ownership of ageism, to self-reflect and mitigate our own biases with courage and urgency. 

In a world grappling with relentless challenges and anguish, there is no more important time to stamp out ageism and for businesses to embrace age diversity to solve staff shortfalls.

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Gary Hunt
Gary Hunt
3 days ago

Sue – as always well researched and a well presented case on the issue of ageism. So glad someone is finally taking a stand and voicing this issue.

Rick Marshall
Rick Marshall
3 days ago

Ageism is more than just an employment and social problem. It is a major productivity problem. At 67 years of age I am actively inventing new software technologies and helping manage a team who constantly refer to me for training on problems. You can’t be this resource without massive experience. That is such a big loss for companies.

Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan
3 days ago

Thanks for the article. An important subject. I notice though that in talking about age bias and actions people / companies are taking your references are for over 45 or 50s. Which always strikes me as “middle age focus”. The real opportunity is for companies to rethink opportunities for the over 65s … At all levels of employment. Interns.. Mid level employees.. Or people wanting to change employment types. Over 65 is the biggest growth market in most countries. More and more over 65s looking for new opportunities be New Life Builders.. So let’s hear more about companies/recruiters l9king to get all that experience in play

KHALID HASAN
KHALID HASAN
2 days ago

Aging is a universal reality! How can we go against it? Continue with 65+ staff or hiring 65+ is a new slogan. And we know, how good a slogan is, when it is new, there are people to act against it. For example, hiring female candidates (slogan “we are an equal opportunity employer”) still faces resistance from many employers and male candidates. Similar challenges are there on color, race, religion, look etc. And that is why we have to promote Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI). It will take time, and we should continue till we establish the reality! My views echo with Jane Caro “When you discriminate against age you are shooting your future self in the foot.” Thanks Sue for a nice article.

Robyn G
Robyn G
1 day ago

Great article, thank you. And good food for thought: ‘We must all take ownership of ageism, to self-reflect and mitigate our own biases with courage and urgency.’