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Generational favouritism: How ageism could be holding your organisation back

As much as organisations may try to fight this fact, there’s no denying that the modern workplace is a fluid and flexible entity, constantly adapting and moulding itself to the evolving needs of stakeholders to avoid running the risk of financial loss or – even worse – complete obsolescence.

This has never been so clearly evidenced as during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left the lion’s share of organisations around the world scrambling to ensure that operations could continue remotely and ultimately precipitated a massive transformation within the workplace.

COVID-19 is, however, not the only catalyst for change: there are several other factors outside of organisations’ control that are steadily bringing about significant workplace transformation. Take, for example, the increasing average life expectancy. Advances in healthcare and an overall improvement in the quality of life have contributed to a higher life expectancy globally. But, while we may marvel at the benefits of such breakthroughs, research shows that most people will outlive their retirement savings by between eight and 20 years.1

Combined with the consistently rising cost of living, these realities will, in all likelihood, make it impossible for a large percentage of workers worldwide to retire at or around the prescribed age as they simply won’t be able to sustain themselves. The implication is that the workplace will inevitably see a surge in the number of older employees in the years to come and organisations need to start preparing for this phenomenon and its effects.

While businesses across South Africa are taking the necessary steps to increase workplace diversity (in terms of race, gender and disability) and are being held accountable for doing so, little is being said or done about the implementation of age-inclusive practices, despite evidence suggesting that older employees are often marginalised. A workplace survey conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that two out of three employees aged 45 or above experience ageism. In addition, over 90 percent of the survey participants believed that age discrimination was commonplace.2

In practical terms, such discrimination can contribute towards a negative or unpleasant working environment as well as a lack of motivation amongst employees. It can also affect the physical and mental well-being of older employees and force them to leave their jobs before they’re ready to retire. But, even before that, it can result in candidates of a certain age being overlooked or dismissed in the recruitment process, thereby depriving organisations of the skills and experience that younger workers do not possess.

What are the types of skills in question here? Well, for one thing, older employees have been shown to possess stronger relationship and leadership skills than younger workers.3 Given that 27% of Generation Z employees (employees born between 1995 and 2015) are already in management positions despite their limited experience, it may be highly advantageous for organisations to diversify their workforce and allow older employees to set the example of professional behaviour.

That being said, having a multi-generational workforce presents its own set of challenges. There are numerous stereotypes, myths and misconceptions about older employees that may hamper organisational progress and success. According to the World Economic Forum, some of the most common myths about older employees are that they are too expensive to employ, that they are unable to acquire new skills and are not technologically savvy, and that they are less productive than their younger counterparts.4 It’s up to recruiters and employers to dispel these myths and engender a change in attitude towards older generations and their place in the workforce.

The key to doing this successfully is developing a deep understanding of the various generations at play. At any one time, there may be up to five generations coexisting in the workplace, each with its own needs, values and priorities. Managers and leaders need to keep this in mind and adapt their styles and strategies accordingly.

While this may seem like a great deal of energy and effort for a single element of the organisational mechanics, the long-term rewards are undeniable. Almost 90 percent of talent professionals agree that a multi-generational workforce makes their company more successful.5 This may be because employing older workers allows organisations to address skills gaps they would not otherwise be able to overcome or because having a generationally diverse workforce can lead to more innovation and, ultimately, happier and more productive employees. Either way, everybody wins.

1Anonymous. 2020. The Future of Work: Changing Values in a Multi-Generational Workforce. [].

2Anonymous. 2020. The Future of Work: Changing Values in a Multi-Generational Workforce. [].

3Anonymous. 2020. The Future of Work: Changing Values in a Multi-Generational Workforce. [].

4Anonymous. 2020. The Future of Work: Changing Values in a Multi-Generational Workforce. [].
5Anonymous. 2020. The Future of Work: Changing Values in a Multi-Generational Workforce. []

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