Beyond Prime Age: Moving from Preconceptions to Objective Assessments. By Clayton Jan

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1 Beyond Prime Age: Moving from Preconceptions to Objective Assessments By Clayton Jan Youth culture has permeated many parts of our world; and the workplace is certainly one area where it is the younger worker that is most often associated with vibrancy, energy and potential. But does this perception reflect reality, or is the preference for prime age workers really just another case of age discrimination? Considering what prime age really means, the unique needs of each age group, and finding better ways to assess ability than guessing someone s age provides Human Resources practitioners with access to a whole range of experiences and skills that are unavailable in younger workers. What is Prime Age? The prime age of workers is generally considered to be between the ages of 25 and 54, and in Australia for example this age group currently comprises around 80 per cent of the workforce. Of these, around a quarter work part-time. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines any worker over 45 as mature age, meaning that prime age and mature age overlap in the definitions. And with up to 70 per cent of a business s value being tied to the experience, skill and ability of its employees, businesses that limit their focus to employees of the traditionally, but somewhat misleadingly titled prime age employees are providing themselves with an unnecessary and limiting handicap. Issues and Challenges of Workforce Age Demographics This experience is not limited to Australia, with stereotypes surrounding age limiting expectations of the skills, abilities and needs of older workers. The preference for prime age workers is not just a problem for employees, but also for communities, economies and even the employers who engage in stereotyping. The ageing workforce is affecting most countries around the world, with India the only major exception. For businesses, the change to age demographics will be evident. For example, the proportion of Australians over 65 will double over the next four decades, and in the state of Queensland, businesses that limit themselves to employing people between 25 and 40 risk finding themselves competing heavily over a pool of a mere 20 per cent of the total potential workforce in future years. 1

2 In the United Kingdom, it has been found that around a quarter of businesses use stereotypical discrimination during the recruitment and selection phase. The very commonality of the situation creates the greatest danger: employers who fail to plan for a time when their workforce must necessarily be comprised of people of all ages, including those over the traditional retirement age of 65, are planning to have long-term intractable human capital issues. Instead, when HR challenges the assumptions surrounding older workers, it opens up new opportunities to source and retain talent for the business. The reasons to educate business leaders about these issues are many: in terms of life expectancy, people are living longer for a start. According to the CIA World Factbook, people from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada can expect to live to 81. Consider the opportunity of maintaining past-retirement employment for a moment: people over 65 can be just as productive and active in their workplaces age is in itself no barrier to work, and the age of 65 as retirement age is artificial. Indeed, in Australia, the retirement age was set at a time when life expectancy was only around 63. With today s expectancies being almost 20 years longer and people spending more years spent in school, this traditional retirement age is untenable. Many businesses are already changing their talent pool outlook just by forgetting about age as a barrier: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are already around 270,000 Australians over 65 working in full-time and part-time jobs. In terms of intended retirement ages, the higher the expected retirement age the more blue collar the job, and vice versa for white collar. When individuals expect to retire is different depending on the specialisation: on average it is from 62.9 years for electronic trades up to 67.5 for intermediate plant operators. With people not entering the full-time workforce until 20 or even later, rather than relegating people to 20 years of prime age employment out of a total of 80 years of life, business can focus on ability rather than age. While age is not a barrier to being productive, it mustn t be totally ignored. The issue however is that HR must consider the different needs of young, mature and prime age workers. In terms of health for instance, the more physical a worker s occupation, the more likely their work is to have health and strength repercussions in later life. In terms of the business s intellectual capital, the goal must be to find solutions that keep the older workers knowledge and skills available even in areas for which their physical abilities are no longer in their prime. Consider the possibility of shifting such workers into positions of providing ongoing training and mentoring of younger workers; brains trusts of older workers for those seriously strange problems; or buddy systems where the older workers are the brains and younger workers are the brawns. The cost of workplace accidents increase as the person s age does; however, the injury from 2

3 poorly-designed jobs and equipment is a contributing factor in such injuries as well. Lessen the likelihood and cost of injury by considering the equipment and job design in your workplace. This benefits the total workforce including younger workers. Prime age workers also have their own specific needs: take for example the issue of young families. The difference in the proportion of men and women in part-time employment is at its greatest during prime age, as women are more likely to transition out of the workforce and back into it as part of their traditional role as primary caregivers. This is particularly evident in women aged 25 to 34 and least evident in women 45 to 54. Men too are more likely to engage in parttime work due to being a single parent or as a result of injury, poor health or disabilities. Unfortunately, men are likely to view part-time work as the full-time equivalent s poor cousin and may begrudgingly accept it as a second choice. For employers, family responsibilities of prime age workers must be effectively managed to avoid allowing the female half of the workforce develop stagnancy in their skills and members of the other half feel that they re not as valued merely because they re single fathers. So how can businesses effectively measure someone s work abilities? The Work Ability Index: HR s Best Friend The Work Ability Index (WAI) is a common method to objectively track and make decisions about someone s capabilities for work. WAI considers a range of issues and how the worker scores on each before coming up with an overall assessment of their ability to perform: Current work ability compared with the lifetime best Work ability in relation to the demands of the job Number of current diseases diagnosed by a physician Estimated work impairment due to diseases Sick leave during the past twelve months Own prognosis of work ability two years from now Mental resources 3

4 Researchers have found that an individual s WAI will not necessarily get worse with age; rather, there is a greater variance. In other words, HR can generally assume that a younger person has a good WAI but cannot assume the same with an older worker. But while some older workers WAI scores may indicate problems, it is a small minority who do, and those who generalise across an age group are cutting off a source of ongoing high experience, skills and abilities in order to avoid slightly more effort in conducting initial assessments. By building Work Ability into your recruitment and selection process for all candidates, you can start using objective information to counteract potentially stereotypical discrimination against workers who are older or younger than expected; and instead focus recruitment teams on candidates actual abilities. A Plan of Action As the issue is one of life-stage management rather than ability, there needs to be a shift of age management out of the recruitment process and into the talent management arena. This requires HR to consider support systems and programs for staff, management and the business. At enterprise level, the focus should be on HR facilitating cooperation between age groups, ageappropriate solutions in ergonomics and schedules, ensuring work flexibility policies take various needs into account, and that appropriate training programs include addressing age discrimination issues. Such programs should be targeted to deliver better productivity, human capital effectiveness and market competitiveness, as well as to establish a better image for the business in the community; among customers; and with potential, current and alumni employees. At the level of individual employees, consider auditing your employee positions against the information about their full range of abilities: do your company s records include all the skills, talents and opportunities they bring? Also audit your talent profile against the national employment data and industry data: is there an untapped opportunity going begging? Consider the different types of workers and the specific types of support they need, as identified by ongoing research from CareerOne s Hunting the (Hidden) Hunter report (CareerOne is Monster s Australian brand). Those with personal ambition want success and career progression. Those who want recognition and reward for their efforts are motivated by being recognised for a job well done. Workers after flexibility want time for family, friends and a life outside of work. Those after work contentment want a satisfying feeling from their employment. Some workers are keen to be in a supportive environment and will not be interested in 4

5 workplaces with cultures that are internally competitive or where people maintain professional distance. Talent analytics is the name of the game for those who don t want to limit their human capital successes. Prime Age: A Euphemism for Discrimination Discrimination on the basis of stereotypes only has negative consequences for business: smaller talent pools, potentially hiring second-best or those with a poor WAI purely because their age is in the desired band, increased taxation to pay for the unemployment benefits and early retirement of otherwise-productive mature aged workers, and a population with less expendable income to pay for goods and services. While experience-based and qualificationbased barriers to employment are essential for ensuring that the worker has the necessary qualifications, skills and experience to do the job, artificial discriminatory barriers based on gender, sexual orientation, age group, ethnic group and the like do little but expose the business to a plethora of unnecessary risks while simultaneously denying candidates a level playing field upon which to compete for employment. By asking the question how can we objectively measure and manage the risk? businesses can start to shift the culture from one of stereotypes to one of talent management success. References Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) Education and Work 24 November: Cat Australian Human Rights Commission (2010) Age Discrimination Exposing the Hidden Barrier for Mature Age Workers Bennington, L. (2004) Prime Age Recruitment: The challenges for age discrimination legislation in Elder Law Review: 27(8). Bright, L. (2010) Why age matters in the work preferences of public employees: a comparison of age-related explanations in Public Personnel Management: 39(1):

6 CareerOne (2010) Hunting the (Hidden) Hunter Central Intelligence Agency Country Comparison: Life expectancy at birth in The World Factbook: Ilmarinen, J., Taylor, P., Brooke, E., McLoughlin, C., & Di Biase, T. (2009) Work Ability Index Seminar : Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation: Queensland Government. Jackson, N., & Walter, M. (2010) Which of Australia s baby boomers expect to delay their retirement? An occupational overview in Australian Bulletin of Labour: 36(1): Macdonald, W., & Munk, K. (2009) Ageing Workforce Issues... implications for OHS managers La Trobe University Productivity Commission (2008) Part time employment: the Australian experience Queensland Government (2005) Valuing Older Workers: Preparing your business for an ageing workforce Department of Industrial Relations data/assets/pdf_file/0003/12279/ir-olderworkers-booklet.pdf 6

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