Will ageism get worse in the post-pandemic workplace?

May 28, 2020 | All posts, Opinions and contributions, Relevant news and stories

By Michael Skapinker

In 2017, a group of US researchers reported what happened when they sent out more than 40,000 job applications. The applications, all fictitious, were for positions in administration, security and retail, and came from people aged 29-31, 49-51 or 64-66. The results were predictable. The older the applicant, the less likely they were to get a callback, particularly if they were female.

Age discrimination has long blighted labour markets around the world, in spite of legal prohibitions against it. Do campaigners worry the coronavirus crisis is about to make age discrimination far worse? “Hugely,” says Ros Altmann, a former UK pensions minister and member of the House of Lords. “I’m so upset to see it.”

Covid-19 has reinforced the idea of older people as frail and vulnerable

Covid-19 has reinforced the idea of older people as frail and vulnerable. Some previous pandemics have largely affected the young — the polio outbreaks of the 1950s mainly hit children under five; the devastating 1918-19 flu killed millions of young adults — but Covid-19 mostly kills older sufferers.

In the US, 80 per cent of those who have died of Covid-19 have been over 65, with the most severe rates for those aged over 85, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same pattern has been repeated throughout the world.

In the UK, the government advised particularly strict social distancing for the over 70s, “regardless of medical conditions”. There was speculation that when lockdown rules were relaxed in May, over-70s would be kept inside. In the end, the government made no distinction on age, continuing only to advise older people to “take particular care”.

“It’s dressed up as trying to protect these old dears,” says Lady Altmann, adding that it makes no sense to blanket age groups in this way. “A fit and healthy 70-year-old is more likely to survive Covid than a 40-year-old with underlying health conditions.”

While there has been justified anger about high mortality rates in UK care facilities, the majority of older people are not in care homes. Lady Altmann points out that there are 13m UK pensioners and 400,000 care home residents.

Positive views of ageing

The focus on older people’s vulnerability reverses the mood of recent years when commentators have pondered what to do about old people living longer and in better health.

“If ever there was a word that needed to be retired it’s retirement.”

In their book The 100-Year Life, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott told 60-year-olds that many of them still had a third of their lives to live and that they should devote themselves to working longer and to community activism. Don Ezra, author of the book “Life Two: How to Get to and Enjoy What Used to be Called Retirement”, wrote last year in the Financial Times: “If ever there was a word that needed to be retired it’s retirement.”

For these pre-coronavirus commentators, it was not just that, with anyone over 60 having a good chance of living past 90, people needed to find ways to fill those added years productively. It was that many risked running out of money before they died. To indicate the scale of the challenge, Gratton and Scott wrote that if today’s young workers put aside a hefty 11 per cent of their salaries every year, they would have to work until they were 85 to have an adequate retirement income. For many older workers, it is too late for that.

There are older people with adequate retirement incomes, including those who spent many years in companies with final salary pension programmes. Those schemes “were such a good deal in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s even,” says Yvonne Sonsino, global co-leader of Next Stage, which explores the work implications of greater longevity at Mercer, part of the Marsh & McLennan professional services group. But most final salary schemes have now closed. The generations behind will have no such security. “That golden age has gone,” she says.

Many of those who are today reaching or are past retirement age do not have final salary pensions, relying instead on defined contribution schemes that depend on investment performance and which have taken a huge knock during the current economic downturn.

Longevity challenges

Anti-ageism campaigners point out that Covid-19 is not going to change societies’ overall longevity challenge. While coronavirus deaths are highest among the elderly, and devastating for bereaved families, Covid-19 is not going to wipe out or substantially diminish the older generation. An ageing population will remain an issue for many countries, bringing increased concerns about how to fund pensions and how to prevent older people from falling into poverty.

In recent years, Ms Sonsino says, government policies on dealing with the issue have been clear: people need to work for longer. State pension ages have been raised. The difficulty now for older workers is that they will be competing for jobs — or trying to remain in the ones they have — at a time of mass unemployment.

In the US, joblessness has hit 14.7 per cent, the highest level since the second world war. In the UK, between March and April, the numbers claiming unemployment benefit rose by 69 per cent to more than 2.1m. And that does not include the 10m who are currently living on government wage subsidies that will eventually have to be wound down.

The last bastion of discrimination

Companies will continue to cut labour costs and their older workers will be easy targets. As people struggle to remain in jobs, is there a danger of intergenerational conflict? “We really do worry about that,” Ms Sonsino says. There is also the risk that employers will become further entrenched in the age discrimination evident in the US applications experiment.

“Whilst many Asian countries report more positive perceptions towards older people, in many western societies we observe a certain level of ‘age aversion’,

Are the same attitudes prevalent in all countries? Ms Sonsino says she has, in her multinational work, found that, in broad terms, respect for age is greater “the further east you go”. Joan Costa-Font of the London School of Economics also wrote recently that international surveys showed that “whilst many Asian countries report more positive perceptions towards older people, in many western societies we observe a certain level of ‘age aversion’, where individuals praise youth stereotypes and older people pretend to be younger to avoid the effects of ageism”.

But Ms Sonsino says she sees little difference in employment: age discrimination practices “hold true across the world”. Few companies hold data about the role of age in their recruitment, bonus awards and training in the way that they now do about gender. “Age is almost the last bastion of diversity to be tackled,” she says.

What can concerned employers do? “Judge workers on their ability, skills and their experience,” says Lady Altmann. “You have to have objective justification for forcing someone to retire.” If you have a 65-year-old employee who is better at the job than someone aged 50, why would you not want to keep the 65-year-old?

Rather than talking to employees about retirement, she advocates discussions about “pretirement”, which could involve people working fewer days or job sharing. This reflects the thinking of many pre-coronavirus commentators: organisations should adopt flexible approaches to all ages in their workforce. The current widespread working from home provides clear indications that old office-based approaches are not always necessary.

And stop referring to people as elderly, Lady Altmann says. What word would she prefer? “Senior, mature, just a person. What does it matter what the age is?”

This blog was originally published in the Financial Times and can be accessed here.