Patrick Thomson from the Centre for Ageing Better, who is our new Top Employer Award judge, talks about what he is looking for in progressive employers and the impact of Covid on older workers.
What makes a top employer for older workers? We ask Patrick Thomson, who is WM People’s new Top Employer Award judge and lead on the Centre for Ageing Better’s age-friendly employers programme*.
Patrick has wide experience in issues related to older workers, and an excellent knowledge of what the top employers for older workers have been doing. His background as a former member of the Government Social Research Unit meant that he has commissioned and managed projects for the DWP ageing society strategy, leading to the evidence based for the removal of the Default Retirement Age. Before that he managed wide scale recruitment and workforce programmes for the London 2021 Organising Committee.
The Top Employer Awards, now in their 12th year, showcase the best in flexible working, parent-friendly and age-friendly working as well as celebrating employers who go the extra mile to promote equality in the workplace.
Patrick says that the picture for older workers through the pandemic has been mixed, with some in particular sectors badly hit by job losses. Research shows it is the oldest and youngest workers who have been the most impacted when it comes to job loss, with older workers typically taking longer to find a new job.
He says older workers have also been more likely to be put on furlough for an extended length of time. A lot of people have been pushed into early retirement and may not have been financially ready. Of course, not working means many may also be missing out on the mental health benefits of work including a sense of purpose, the social aspects and so on. Research shows one in eight people between 50 and 64 changed their retirement plans due to Covid, either bringing them forward or delaying them.
On the positive side, there was a mass remote working experiment. While remote working may not be appropriate for all jobs or all people, Patrick says it offers older workers more choice in where and how they work, with older people being more likely to have their own homes and a better homeworking environment than their younger counterparts. He adds that commuting can have a big impact on whether work is sustainable for older workers, and he says older people are more likely to live in rural and suburban areas so they could benefit if there are more remote jobs available post-covid.
Patrick stresses that we are nowhere near knowing the full implications of Covid. “A lot is still up in the air,” he says. For instance, there are big discussions about how hybrid working can be done in a way that doesn’t impact on knowledge exchange, for instance, between older and younger workers. While Patrick says the framing of older workers as ‘selfish’ for wanting to work more from home is not right, he admits there is an issue for employers to think about. “Transferring knowledge is not the same on Zoom,” he says. Being in the room can offer extra opportunities such as the ability to shadow people, to observe how more senior people operate, to note body language or simply to grab someone at the end of a meeting. That means employers need to think laterally and devise more structured, less opportunistic ways to transfer knowledge.
Remote working could also reinforce hierarchies if not managed well, adds Patrick. “It can be easy to be passive observers on Zoom. We have been amazingly quick at adapting to online working, but there is the slow tail of how we get it right,” he says.
Asked if the spotlight on ageism in the recruitment process due to long-term unemployment could encourage employers to address ageism in the workplace – something emerging evidence suggests many are too complacent about. Patrick adds that the 50s and 60s can be times of major life transitions with regard to a person’s health, their caring responsibilities or preparations for retirement. It is important to have a good employer who is aware of these stresses and who invests in lifelong learning. “People need an employer who makes sure that older people are not a forgotten group,” he states.
Patrick adds: “A lot of ageist attitudes remain and they become internalised. People say things that would not be accepted about other protected characteristics. And if people say them enough you start believing them about yourself. In some sectors like media and technology people can be made to feel past it from a fairly early age. That is worrying as society and the economy benefits from people working.”
When it comes to what he is looking for in a top employer of older workers – and a top employer generally, Patrick says he is keen to see employers who are doing practical, proactive things that are embedded in their processes.
He would like to see employers looking more closely at their recruitment processes to weed out ageist language or assumptions. He is optimistic that things will change and points to the rapid embrace of menopause policies by some employers.
He thinks that employers would do well to ensure they have good feedback loops from all employees, including older workers, and that they should encourage their employees to shape and design their policies, with all initiatives to address inequalities being intersectional. “We shouldn’t just lump workers into one group or think of them as a cost or a burden. People are so much more varied. They have so many different sides and bring so much richness to what they can contribute at work,” says Patrick.
To enter the Top Employer Awards, click here. The deadline for entries in 21st October.
*Patrick is just about to move to the Shaw Trust Foundation where he will be Director of their Policy institute.