Analysis: research has found that many Irish workers over 55 years of age believe age is a factor in the workplace

By Trudy Corrigan and Mark MorganDCU

Almost 90% of workers over 55 years of age who were unemployed before Covid believed that their age was a key factor in their inability to secure employment. Pre-Covid, 38% of unemployed people aged between 35 to 54 years believed that they were seen as too old for specific workplaces such as the technology sector.  This was one of the key findings in a recent DCU study evaluating ageism and bullying in the workplace. 

The findings highlighted that older workers feel discriminated at key important stages of their working lives. This begins as early as the recruitment stage, where employers can discriminate against older prospective employees on the basis of reviewing their CV. Prospective employees believe that discrimination can frequently be based on years of previous work experience. In addition, this discrimination extends to workers in the later part of their working lives where stereotypes of ageing can frequently create a negative attitude towards older employees' knowledge, capabilities and skills. For many employees surveyed, this form of discrimination is evidenced particularly in the later years of their working life.

It is anticipated that the nuber of people over 65 years of age in Ireland will rise from 629,800 in 2016 to approximately 1.5 million in 2051, while this cohort will triple in size across the world by 2050. With the public service statutory retirement age now increased to 67 years in Ireland, there is an opportunity for many older people to remain working for longer in the workplace.

A key factor in ageism and bullying are issues related to stereotyping as we age

This choice to remain working for longer can frequently be regarded by some employees as a necessary decision based on rising house prices, increased rent and other expenses such as a deficit in personal income left by diminished pensions. Sometimes the decision to remain working for longer can be a choice based on wanting to improve their overall health and well-being. They believe they can enhance their work/life balance by remaining for longer time in the workplace. This can benefit organisations in terms of shared tacit knowledge, expertise and skills which continue to remain and to be developed by older employees. 

A key factor in ageism and bullying identified by the researchers are issues related to stereotyping as we age. These stereotypes can frequently have a negative impact on older workers, such as general assumptions regarding older workers being unsuitable for acquiring new skills necessary for today's workplace. Yet the study highlighted that, while some scientific evidence suggests some aspects of intellectual functioning decline to a small extent from 40 years onwards, skills and knowledge learned from an earlier life remain largely intact. The researchers noted that the wealth of experience, knowledge and skills which older employees acquire over their lifetime compensates for this small loss.

The findings suggest that workplace bullying has a measurable impact on retirement decisions for older workers and results in some choosing to retire earlier than they would have anticipated. This decision then impacts in a negative way on their overall income, health and well-being post retirement.  A key factor in the prevention of ageism and bullying specific to ageing identified through this research was awareness and knowledge of legislation related to discrimination on the grounds of ageing. The promotion of practices which were designed to eliminate ageist workplace bullying were also seen as key.   

A greater understanding of ageist attitudes in the workplace needs to be addressed now more than ever 

The report also provided some recommendations

(i) Employers need to develop positive mind sets, attitudes and behaviours to be inclusive of prospective older employees who are seeking new careers. This is to view the curriculum vitae of prospective older employees in light of the potential, talents, skills and value which they have to bring to their new workplace.

(ii) Organisations need to develop a culture and ethos which is supportive of older workers. This is in particular through providing a top-down approach to consciousness raising of ageist attitudes and to develop practices and policies that are inclusive and respectful of older workers.

(iii) Greater awareness of both employers and employees’ understanding of legislation which prevents ageism and age discrimination is significantly important. This is to address and to eradicate ageist attitudes which might exist in the workplace either in a conscious or unconscious way.

(iv) Increased opportunities to develop a multigenerational workforce has been noted as a way to reduce stereotyping and ageism in the workplace. One example of this is the use of reverse mentoring programmes, which has been successfully implemented in some workplaces.

While the study was undertaken in 2019 before Covid, the researchers acknowledge that a greater understanding of ageist attitudes in the workplace needs to be addressed now more than ever. This can be done through the introduction of specific policy and practices which addresses ageism and bullying. 

Greater awareness of legislation on ageism should be adhered to at all levels of management and among the diversity of employees within the workplace. This is to ensure that organisations can be a happier and more rewarding place, not only for older workers but for the contribution and benefits of their shared knowledge, expertise and skills transferred to younger employees. This has the potential to make the workplace more rewarding for all.

Dr Trudy Corrigan is a lecturer and researcher in the School of Policy and Practice at the Institute of Education and a research fellow in the Anti-Bullying Centre at DCUProfessor Mark Morgan is Emeritus Cregan Professor of Education and a research fellow in the Anti-Bullying Centre at DCU.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ