Pervasive ageist and ableist attitudes lock employees out of the workplace, costing not only individuals but employers and the economy, a new report argues.
The report from UK think tank the International Longevity Centre (ILC) urges employers to tackle ageism at work, ensure better access to training, and support employees’ health to remain competitive in the post-pandemic recovery.
Although the Equality Act outlaws both ageism and ableism in the UK, research from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and the University of Kent suggests such discrimination persists in the workplace. In interviews, employers revealed often seeing training and professional development as more relevant for younger workers.
Despite formally embracing equality, managers still commonly speak in ageist and ableist terms about older workers being less motivated or less able to undertake training and professional development. These age norms are often also internalised by older workers themselves, with many saying they are “too old” for training or promotion and that they should leave that “to the younger ones”.
“The language managers use to talk about older workers and the way those older workers frame their own thoughts about, work, extending working lives, and retirement are important,” commented Professor Sarah Vickerstaff at the University of Kent.
“Age stereotypes are routinely employed with respect to older workers’ capabilities and potential. Age norms about what is appropriate for different age groups are often used to talk about training and development or extending working lives,” she added.
“In this sense, ageism is normalised in organisations, taken for granted, and to a large extent unexamined. Ageist language does not seem to have the power to shock in the way that overtly racist or sexist language nowadays might.”
Similarly, the research highlights that internalised ageism and ableism prevents some employees from seeking health support, which may worsen conditions and lead to early retirement.
Previous ILC research highlighted that around one million people aged between 50 and 64 in the UK are forced out of the workforce early as a result of health or care needs or caring for a loved one.
Covid-19 has further exacerbated these trends. While employment participation of older workers had been growing pre-pandemic, trends have reversed as the oldest and youngest workers have been hardest hit by the economic fallout caused by the global crisis.
Managers and employees seem to have internalised what is referred to as a decline narrative; the idea that with older age comes inevitable physical and cognitive deterioration
Last week’s ONS report showed that between December 2020 and February 2021, employment rates of 50-64 year-olds continued to fall from 72.6% to 71.1%, and from 11.5% to 10.4% for those aged over 65, despite an increase in the over-50 population during this period.
Older workers still in work have also reported working fewer working hours than usual, and one-quarter of the UK’s 1.3 million workers on furlough are aged 50 or over, with many worried they will be made redundant once the scheme ends.
“Both managers and employees seem to have internalised what is referred to as a decline narrative; the idea that with older age comes inevitable physical and cognitive deterioration,” said Dr Mariska van der Horst, assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit.
“This decline narrative seems to be accompanied with a view that paid work is not for people with health problems. Part of what may be referred to as ageism may therefore be hidden ableism,” she continued. “Changing the narrative to stress that, ‘not all older workers have health problems’ is not helpful as this may increase ableism and could reinforce the message that work is for ‘the healthy’.
“Instead, we need to better teach and understand what is referred to as the social model of disability – to what degree are people disabled by barriers in society rather than by a potential health issue? How can we make the employee more central and supported in the workforce? How can we make the job fit with the person, rather than the person fit the job?”
ILC research found that if G20 countries enabled older workers to work at the same rates as seen in Iceland, this could boost GDP by an average of 7% each year. Supporting health at work, addressing discrimination, and ensuring access to training and career development are key to tapping into this potential, the report argues.
“To remain competitive when dealing with an ageing workforce, organisations must act to create inclusive work environments,” said Dr Brian Beach, senior research fellow and lead report author. “Occupational health services should also act as an advocate for the worker, and future efforts must focus on ongoing support to enable the worker to stay in work rather than just get back to work.”