How to build a business that celebrates and supports older workers
Practical steps and helpful insights for leaders committed to supporting team members of all ages.
The competitive benefits of prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are widely known in 2023. However, despite the awareness and meaningful efforts among founders and leaders to create inclusive workplaces, there’s a group of people who are often overlooked in DE&I efforts: older workers.
While the definition of an “older worker” is a moving target, for the purpose of this article we’re talking about folks 50 and over. Though 50 is still a relatively young starting point (after all, a person in their 50s may very well be in the prime of their career), it’s also true that ageism in the workplace begins sooner rather than later.
The fact is, being overlooked and underappreciated at work can be a running theme for folks over 50. Younger job seekers with less experience are three times more likely to be invited to interview than older applicants; two-thirds of older employees get passed over for promotion; and 80% of older workers say they’ve experienced age discrimination at the workplace, among many other negatives.
This common experience among older applicants and employees is by no means a new phenomenon, but it’s one that is in need of meaningful change — especially in light of changing workforce demographics and growing awareness of the benefits of truly inclusive workplaces.
That’s why, in this article, we’re making the case for becoming an organization that truly commits to age inclusion and diversity. Then, we’ll help you to act on that commitment by providing five practical steps all founders can take to continually support and celebrate their older applicants and employees.
The workforce is changing, and workplaces need to change with it
The workforce in the U.S. is undergoing a seismic shift: People are working later in life. According to Gallup, there are significantly fewer American retirees between ages 55 and 74 compared with the beginning of the century, and it appears that the trend will continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that a quarter of the workforce will be older than 55 by 2024, and of this, one-third will be 65 or over.
While the motivations for older folks to continue to work as they age may vary, there are two prominent reasons that we can point to: financial necessity and a strong desire to keep going and doing. Beyond the financial benefit, remaining in work can empower older workers to continue finding purpose and fulfillment. As Diane Dalmasse, who, at 71, finds deep value in her work as director of the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Waterbury, said to Pew Research Center: “It’s a passion thing for me. We make a difference, and I just love the work.”
Whether older workers are driven by desire to work or by financial necessity, the result is a rapidly changing and aging workforce. Alongside that change comes the growing need for businesses to adapt by taking a different approach — one that’s more holistic, diverse, equitable, and inclusive (read: devoid of any accidental or conscious age-related prejudice and bias) of and for older workers.
As a values-driven founder, truly embracing a multigenerational team and facilitating a supportive workplace for older employees offers a whole host of (widely unrecognized!) benefits. For example, older workers can possess a range of decades-honed soft skills, from stress management to interpersonal expertise; they can also be more company-loyal, thereby decreasing turnover and lowering associated costs; and, despite ingrained stereotypes regarding output and aging, older workers are just as productive as their younger counterparts.
Of course, there are significant benefits to the older team members themselves, which mirror those that meaningful, fulfilling work brings to workers of all ages. When you provide older team members the opportunity to contribute to your mission, you’re providing them with a chance to solidify and deepen their financial security, exercise their impactful talents and skills in a receptive, appreciative environment, and connect with other humans, which is the most important determinant of happiness.
So how, as a busy founder, can you create and nurture an age-inclusive and age-diverse workplace? We’ve done some research to get you started. Read on for five effective methods for developing and nurturing a multigenerational workplace that doesn’t just treat older workers with dignity and respect, but actively encourages them to flourish.
Establishing and sustaining an age-inclusive, age-diverse workplace: Five steps for founders
From immersing yourself in relevant demographic data to ensuring that nuanced and comprehensive mentoring programs are in place, these five actionable steps will help you transform your workplace to become a more age-inclusive and age-diverse one.
1. Dig into data to understand successes — and pinpoint areas of improvement
Before amending practices, policies, processes, and programs — or implementing new ones! — it’s incredibly important to dig into any demographic data you have on your employees and job applicants. Not only will the data paint an accurate picture of your current (and previous) situation regarding age inclusion and diversity, but it will also help you move forward intentionally to make the most appropriate and impactful internal changes.
Take time to review the recruiting, onboarding, and offboarding demographic data you’ve collected to date. Within the context of that initial deep dive, you'll want to comb through the figures and stats with the following questions in mind:
How many people over 50 apply for your roles?
Where do people over 50 drop out of the hiring process?
How many people do you currently employ who are over the age of 50, and what historical data do you have on that number?
How many people over 50 have been offboarded (if any), and what were the reasons for those exits?
Additionally, you’ll want to be intersectional here. For instance, seeing as women are disproportionately impacted by ageism, take a look at whether your findings are impacted by gender. Is there a disparity between women and men over 50 applying for your roles? Similarly, how many women over 50 do you employ compared to men? By being mindful of intersectionality, you can potentially pinpoint further areas of improvement.
After spending some time scrutinizing the data, make sure to note where beneficial improvements could be made and confirm where time and energy should be dedicated.
Remember that if this step (or any that follow, for that matter) seems overwhelming, you don’t have to go it alone. There are individuals and firms focused on helping businesses understand and address ageism, collect and review data, and create a strategy to make the right changes. For example, 55/Redefined works with businesses that want to build on and better their age-related DE&I via their Work/Redefined arm; consultants like workplace ageism expert Dr. Nadine Franz do the same.
2. Ensure job advertising and interview practices are age inclusive
If, in your data deep dive, you discover that not many people over the age of 50 have been applying for open roles and/or they haven’t been successful getting through the door, this step concerning job advertising and interview improvements is for you.
Sometimes it’s the subtle aspects of a job advertisement or the interview process that can convince folks not to apply for or take on a role they’re interested in — even if, skills- and values-wise, they’d be a great fit. To help you recognize common age-related advertising and hiring process pitfalls and then tackle them head-on, we’ve collated guidance from the Centre for Ageing Better’s guide GROW: Good Recruitment for Older Workers, as well as insight from this article by Leah Knobler, director of talent acquisition at Help Scout.
Remove bias from the job descriptions you post for open roles; word them with care. Certain words will deter older applicants from applying, thereby negatively skewing the applicant pool. According to the GROW guide, terms and words that should be cut include “innovative,” “adaptable,” “technologically savvy,” and “recent graduate.” Meanwhile, job descriptions that specifically mention flexible working opportunities, generous pension contributions, and a short diversity statement will increase older applicants’ likelihood of applying and have a positive effect on their perceived fit in your company.
Circulate job postings widely. You’ll ultimately increase your reach — and improve the age diversity of your team — by broadening whereyou’re advertising roles. Posting on more general job sites like Indeed, CareerBuilder, and even LinkedIn is a surefire way to target applicants of all ages. And if you specifically want to target older applicants to balance out your applicant pool, AARP’s Job Board is a tailor-made digital platform that matches older job seekers with employers who are committed to age diversity.
Adopt impactful, age-inclusive hiring practices. Help Scout has a commitment to creating diverse hiring teams and to providing in-house interview training, both of which are key in helping to ensure age inclusivity. The interview training, which is required for anyone participating in a hiring team, informs team members about the goals of the process, how Help Scout defines and maintains candidate experience, unconscious bias pitfalls, and how to ask questions and assess candidates fairly. Creating and then following structured interviews is also a helpful practice, Leah noted. Not only does this approach create consistency for both parties, but it also helps to further keep unconscious bias at bay.
3. Pay equitable salaries — and don’t make salary-based assumptions
It’s important to recognize that hiring and employing an older worker doesn’t mean you’ll be paying higher wages simply due to age. In fact, Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic — two business and leadership experts — argue it’s inequitable to do so. In their Harvard Business Review article on hiring older workers, they note that pay equity should inherently be based on job and level rather than age and tenure: “It’s more than OK for an older person to make less money than a younger person if they’re new to the job. In fact, it’s fair.”
Moreover, the somewhat entrenched assumption that older workers are more expensive to hire for the same skill set than younger folks is a prejudiced line of thinking that can stop the right talent from being interviewed and hired. Paying close attention to hiring practices, as we’ve mentioned above, will go a long way toward addressing this issue.
4. Devise and implement an effective cross-generational mentoring program
Mentorships are often rooted in a fixed dynamic: Somebody (the mentor, usually older) does the teaching, while the other (the mentee, usually younger) does the learning. While this top-down format has its advantages, evolving this standard model to one in which cross-generational participants serve as both mentor and mentee may prove more valuable and dynamic in bridging soft and hard skills gaps.
By facilitating such a program — which combines the traditional mentoring program with Jack Welch’s concept of reverse mentoring — you’re enabling older workers to upskill in the areas they’d like to gain more expertise. On the flip side, older workers have decades’ worth of both corporate and lived experience, and you’re providing them with the space to share invaluable advice and skills with their younger colleagues. It’s a cross-fertilization of insight, skills, and ideas.
The following steps can be a good starting place to get a useful cross-generational mentoring program up and running:
Define the program’s duration, scope, and goals. First, think about the program’s duration and scope, i.e., if it’s an optional or a mandatory program (HBR argues the latter), how frequent the sessions should be, and how much time should be blocked for each mentoring session. For instance, an optional six-month program, with monthly, hour-long sessions, could be a good place to start. Then, as writer Sophia Lee suggested in a blog post on the topic published by people development platform Torch, consider your goals for the program: Is it to upskill both younger and older folks? Is it to improve cross-generational team bonds and cohesion? Is it both these things — or something else entirely?
Share the program internally and get people interested. After landing on and documenting the program’s duration, scope, and goals, carve out time to announce and market the program internally. Clearly outline it and explain the inherent benefits of taking part, and be mindful to set aside a little time — either in your Slack or Teams DMs or via a post-announcement Q&A call or meeting that’s open to everybody — in case any interested employees have follow-up questions, concerns, or thoughts.
Get interested participants to list their strengths and weaknesses. So you can gather qualitative data on each interested participant’s areas of strength and weakness, ask participants to complete a SWOT analysis (Marci Martin, a contributing writer at Business News Daily, has written this short, effective guide on completing a personal SWOT analysis that may be useful for interested participants). Alternatively, a simple Google Forms questionnaire can also serve this purpose, as long as interested participants have opportunities to note their strengths and weaknesses, their goals, and where they could help others. Advocate for your folks to be painstakingly honest about their abilities and drawbacks here — the program won’t be as effective if they aren’t.
Pair people up based on their strengths and weaknesses as well as by generation. To maximize the program’s value, match cross-generational participants according to their unique skill gaps and strengths. It’s also important for you to pair participants up rather than allowing them to choose — affinity bias, even when accounting for age differences, can otherwise limit participants’ growth potential.
Inform pairs about their pairing, and send them on their way. With the pairs matched, share the news and give context on why they’ve been paired up. Finally, advise them to schedule a brief pre-program meeting, where they can introduce themselves (if they don’t already know each other) and set their goals together.
At the end of the planned mentoring period, be sure to solicit feedback so you can decide if and how to continue to make sure it’s a valuable program for the team. Allowing for anonymous responses here will enable participants to speak freely, thereby bringing in truly honest (read: the most useful!) feedback.
5. Offer a returnship for older folks looking to rejoin the workforce
We all know that the trajectory of our lives — personally and professionally — is rarely linear. All of us encounter twists and turns, and the longer we live, the more diversions we navigate. For older folks who may have been diverted from a professional path earlier in life and wish to return — or reroute the course they’re currently taking — a returnship offers an incredible opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute. As a founder, developing a returnship program can be a win-win: an initiative that serves both the “returnee” and you, the employer.
Introduced by Goldman Sachs in 2008, the returnship was created to support women trying to re-enter the workforce after life circumstances necessitated a career break. At its core, the initiative provides people with the opportunity to learn or brush up on relevant skills in a hands-on way, resulting in increased confidence, a refined skill set, and more appeal to prospective employers in the process. Today, returnships have diversified and can be geared toward people of a wide range of backgrounds who’ve left the workforce — not least toward older folks.
For companies looking to commit to age inclusivity and diversity, offering a returnship is an actionable, rewarding way to realize that commitment. Interested in what a returnship might actually look like in the wild? Stoltz — a woman-owned, women-led creative agency located in Boise, Idaho — has a noteworthy example.
The company’s 12-week returnship includes professional mentorship, skill-building opportunities, meaningful connections, and a supportive and encouraging environment, leading to confidence while easing back into the workforce and empowerment to take control of the future. It’s reminiscent of an internship, but it intentionally caters to the needs of returning workers instead.
The returnship’s value can be immense. As Nicole Cooper, the recipient of Stoltz’s 2022 returnship initiative, said in this blog post: “I’m learning about the creative process, data analytics, competitor research, project management, using Slack, and skilling up on a MacBook. [...] The mere existence of this program restores my faith that people do see value in the “invisible” work of caregivers — and potential in middle age.”
Empowering older workers to be and do their best
Building a business that’s genuinely inclusive and appreciative of older workers will have its challenges — it involves continued learning (which this piece has hopefully helped kick off), effort, and time. The sooner a commitment to age inclusion and diversity is made, the sooner everybody benefits, because age inclusion and diversity are exactly that: immense net benefits for all folks, both today and tomorrow.
Here’s to showing ageism the door.