When did second-hand clothing stop being a ‘bit embarrassing’ and become the cool world of ‘vintage’? When did people stop feeling that ‘second-hand is second best’ and start boasting about their finds, getting kudos for being trendy, savvy and environmentally sound? When did the market for second-hand become interesting enough to attract new players such as Depop, Vinted, ThredUp and Micolet to compete alongside the established charity shops? It’s been a fascinating rebrand, driven by many things including fashion influencers, politics and an increased sense of personal accountability for the environment – and it looks as if it’s more than a trend, it’s shift that is here to stay.
There are lots of parallels between this and the challenge facing a large section of our workforce – older workers. Older workers, including those from age 50, are currently seen as the outdated and discarded clothes of the old-fashioned charity shops and jumble sales. They are victims of huge negative stereotypes such as being less productive, taking more time off through sickness, not being interested in learning, being resistant to change, being technophobes and expensive… Despite more attention being given to older workers and their rights, there is little evidence of a decline in discrimination. This is not good for the older workers and it’s not good for organisations either as they are at risk of missing out if they fail to unlock the ‘opportunities of multigenerational teams’ including increased productivity, engagement and collaboration. By 2025 (in just 4 years), one in three working age people will be 50 or over. This is huge. If we are to fully embrace this we need to change the story. We need to show that the stereotypes are simply not true and to really celebrate the value that older, ‘vintage’ workers can bring. As with vintage clothes, we need to see beyond the label, the history and our assumptions, and we need to focus on the potential.
So, how can we change the story and do a compelling rebrand of older workers? We all have a part to play in combatting ageism and sharing a positive vision of older workers. Here are three steps to get you started.
1. Don’t Collude with the Stereotypes
Many of us are happy to send a card poking fun at someone’s age… about becoming forgetful, about declining health and inability to master new technology. It’s just a bit of fun – isn’t it? Yes, it can be fun, but every time we do it we’re colluding. We’re adding to the negative stereotypes about older people, it’s not helpful– and it might just come back and haunt you. When you apply for that next job, the chances are that you don’t want people saying to you that because you’re older you lack energy and don’t have sufficient mental, physical and digital capacity… it’s harmful and inaccurate. To change the stereotype, we need to notice when we’re colluding and we need to reflect on our bias, on the pervasive stereotypes and we need to challenge them.
2. Celebrate Older Worker Stories
Older people can often feel hidden in the workplace. At its worst, we hear people describing their experiences as ‘ignored’, ‘put out to grass’, ‘fobbed off’, ‘left out’, ‘undervalued’. This is a challenge across society, with research by the UK’s Centre for Ageing Better illustrating the damaging way ageing tends to be portrayed in areas such as politics, media and advertising. So, how can we change this? What role can each of us play? Alongside challenging the negative stereotypes, we can find and share compelling stories that illustrate the value of the ‘vintage worker’, the positive benefits that older people can bring to the workplace. This needs to be more than tokenism, more than the patronising symbol of a long-service watch (or even more outdated, a carriage clock!). We need to showcase the positive role models, the people contributing to multi-generational teams, the people like Sarah (not her real name). Sarah works in technology and continues to invest time in keeping on top of the latest developments, she’s at the forefront of what’s going on. As well as that, she uses her great people skills, her huge knowledge and her maturity to develop and mentor the next generation. She is such an integral part of the business, she should be celebrated!
3. Become an Ally
There is a lot of awareness of the value that each of us can bring by being an ally to under-represented groups. If we belong to a privileged group we can listen, seek to understand other people’s experience, adding our voice to theirs to provide support, pressure and challenge to decision makers and those who have influence. As an ally for older workers we can all help to change the conversation, changing it from a ‘problem to be solved’ to an ‘opportunity’ (as suggested by the World Economic Forum). There are some great allies out there. People like David Blackburn, Chief People Officer at the FSCS who is a passionate advocate for age diversity, creating inclusive workplaces for the older ‘pioneers’, providing flexible working and meaningful work. There’s the long-standing approach taken by Du Pont, whereby they actively recruit ‘seasoned professionals’ with 25% of new recruits already having 30 years work experience. There are also some inspiring examples from the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, as shown in this short video. How can you use your influence to become an ally and really harness the opportunity of older workers and multigeneration teams?
It feels as if things are starting to shift and there is some exciting stuff going on, with new organisations such as 55/Redefined emerging as the new depop equivalent. Yes, it will take time to change the story. Governments, organisations and the media all have a role to play into fully embracing older workers and to see the value in the vintage. We can all play our part too - let’s step up as allies and work together to rebrand older workers. Want to start straight away? Why not share some great stories that showcase some of the magic that older workers can bring....