Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ageism - scoping the problem

A simple Google search on ageism brings up some 1,040,000 references to ageism, yet the widespread use of the term is relatively new.

To the degree that it was discussed forty years ago, age based discrimination in the workforce was still seen in terms of discrimination against younger workers who were trying to break in. In most Western countries, this was the time that the rolling wave of better educated baby boomers was starting to hit the workforce, impatient to move on, to bring about change.

Complaints that the entrenched position of older workers are reducing opportunities for younger workers still exist, although the focus has shifted in that in more recent times the major complaint has been the way in which the large cohorts of baby boomers in some countries have blocked off opportunities for Generation X. Here I heard one commentator describe Generation X as the waiting generation, waiting for the baby boomers to retire or die!

Beyond this point, the major issue now is discrimination against older workers.

Looking back, the turning point here came in the seventies, a global decade of economic troubles that saw the beginning of the end of the old concept of life-long work within the one organisation as organisations were forced to restructure. This change gathered pace during the eighties and nineties, a change reflected in the rise of terms such as down-sizing and process re-engineering.

The first effect of the change process was a rise in unemployment in two age groups, the less well educated under 25 and the older worker over 45. Those in between were relatively cushioned, experiencing much lower rates of unemployment.

As the change process continued, the old concept of loyalty to the organisation and of life-long employment was replaced by a new paradigm in which the worker was meant to take responsibility for his/her own career during a working life spread across multiple employers.

Older workers face significant problems in this new world.

At a personal level, they have worked for fewer organisations and are often less equipped to manage as compared to younger workers who have grown up in a world of multiple job shifts. Their time horizons are also different, simply because they face a shorter remaining working life.

At organisational level, older workers face organisations that have not in fact fully accepted the changes that they themselves have collectively forced upon the workforce in that their structures and approaches still have along term organisation career focus.

Take training as an example. Much training focuses on giving younger workers the skills they need to advance within the organisation. There is often little training for older workers who already have skills but need to reposition themselves.

This pattern is replicated across organisations. Job advertisements are still worded in career advancement terms that may have limited relevance to an older worker. Selection committees select in part with the next career step in mind even though staff turnover may make it uncertain that the person will in fact be there to take the job.

All these things discriminate against older workers. Sometimes the younger focus can be justified in organisational terms. More often, it is a sign that organisations have not in fact fully thought through the emerging realities of the modern working world.

Note to reader:

This is one of a series of irregular posts on ageism. The introductory post can be found here.

No comments: