Is Age Just a Number? The Problems of Ageism in Recruitment

Published by:
Demetre Constantopoulos
April 16, 2019
min read

Debiased Hiring Bundle

Despite efforts to increase staff diversity, ageism continues to be rife in the workplace. This article will explore ways to stop ageism in recruitment.

Diversity in recruitment is a hot-button issue. 2019 has brought many discussions on dismantling race and gender bias. In spite of this, ageism as a whole remains prevalent. Stereotypes about age have persisted, especially in employment.

A substantial portion of the older generation wants to get into work. They have plenty of life left in them, and more to pass on to the new generation than just Werther’s Originals. However, people of a certain age regularly face barriers to employment.

Ageism is defined as discrimination, as outlined in the Equality Act 2010. In theory, it is just as unacceptable in the workplace as racism, sexism or homophobia. The problem is that there is a marked difference between active age discrimination and implicit bias in the recruitment process.

Colin’s grown tired of the gangsta life and wants to settle into a 9-5

An age-old problem

Not only is ageism arbitrarily hindering older people from finding employment, studies also show it could have long-term ramifications on both the economy and the public sector. Think about this in relation to sectors that are notoriously understaffed. Ageism is rife in medicine, nursing, and teacher hiring, and yet all of these professions are suffering from a dangerous lack of staff.

Stereotypes persist that older people are too old fashioned or physically capable to meet the demands of either patients or young people, but consider the following:

  • There are nearly 40,000 vacancies for nursing jobs in the UK
  • The British government has missed recruitment targets for teachers for the last six consecutive years, with 2019 seeing a critical shortage for maths and sciences.

A 2015 report from the Department of Work and Pensions stated that ‘By 2022, there will be 700,000 fewer people aged 16 to 49 in the UK workforce but 3.7 million more people aged between 50 and state pension age.’ Now we would hope that this demographic shift would be reflected in the UK’s workforce. Before we get our hopes up however, some misconceptions about age need to be given the heave-ho.

What are the examples of ageism in employment?

The problem is that discrimination in the workplace is often subtle. Take job descriptions for example. It’s highly unlikely a company would specify ‘no coffin dodgers’ in an advertised vacancy. However, anyone who’s spent a lot of time job hunting will have encountered terms like ‘go-getter’, ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘forward-thinking’ – in other words ‘young’ ‘young’ and ‘young’.

The same ageist practices can be seen with companies seeking recent graduates. There are a plethora of fast-track career opportunities for eager young graduates. In comparison, a study conducted by Capita Resourcing found that ‘only 23 percent of businesses are actively seeking to employ people over the age of 50.’

Now, employers may say that hiring a younger employee means they can nurture someone to grow and bring long-term value. However, just because something seems to make sense on the surface doesn’t make it morally right or even good business sense. Those illustrious ‘millennials’ are much more likely to embrace job mobility. Many bright, savvy young people would accept a job only to snap up a much more lucrative opportunity shortly after.

The widespread misconception is that older people are slow to embrace certain technologies or hone new skills. Therefore, even if they have demonstrable experience in a certain job, the chances of a new vocation are almost slim to nil. This often makes apprenticeships or training schemes out of the question – regardless of whether an old dog can learn new tricks.

All of the problems outlined so far centre on a common theme – recruiters and employers alike seem to believe that someone with probably twice as much life experience as them have nothing to offer. When put this way ageism is pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? Think about it – companies have such an onus nowadays on efficiency and sustainability, so who better to hire than someone who grew up with a ration book?

Is age-blind recruitment feasible?

Removing candidates’ date of birth from CVs seems like a quick solution to stop ageism – if only it were so simple. Even if somebody’s age isn’t explicitly referenced in a CV, their education and employment background will still give recruiters a rough idea. Take qualifications for instance. If someone has O-Levels rather than GCSEs, they are more than likely to have attended school a few decades ago.

Even if age wasn’t a factor when going through CVs, successful older applicants will most certainly have to attend an interview. It’s rather difficult to mask someone’s age when they’re sitting across the interview table – unless they use an incredible moisturiser.

Meryl Streep? Never heard of her…

When we talk about ‘age-blind’, we don’t mean being oblivious to somebody’s age. It’s virtually impossible (or ethical for that matter) to mask someone’s age during the recruitment process. Instead, we need to dispel certain myths about older people. This appears to be the only way we can drum out the archaic attitudes evident in the hiring process.

Are there solutions to ageism in the workplace?

If we are to break down barriers to employment for older people, it needs to be done on both a micro and a macro level. Take a look at your company’s discrimination policy, and make sure that it focuses as much on ageism as it does on sexism, racism or homophobia. If those at the top take a stand against ageism, everyone else will fall in line.

Just make sure that any official policy is properly implemented, rather than just paying lip service to equal opportunities. It’s also a good idea to consolidate the policy with specialist training. This could not only help your staff acknowledge instances when they might be guilty of ageism, but help them spot workplace discrimination in the future.

Remember that it’s not just about clamping down on old-fashioned opinions about age (ironic right?). It’s about giving people more chances to flourish. This article referenced how older people are often excluded from training schemes. Instead, put these people in positions where they can impart their wisdom and knowledge to younger staff members. It’s all about giving older people the opportunity to bring long-term value to a company.

We hope that after reading this article, you’ll be inspired to help recruiters clean up their act when it comes to ageism . We think that our resource centre is a great start. It’s packed full with guides and studies for the next trailblazers of diversity recruitment. Alternatively, request a demo to learn how our hiring platform can reduce bias in the recruitment process.