Young team leader correcting offended senior employee working on computer in office, female manager scolding aged old worker for mistake or incompetence, different generations and age discrimination

According to a 2018 labour force report, Canadians aged 55 plus accounted for 37.9 per cent of the working population. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

Canada | Trends

Ageism is alive and thriving in our workforce, limiting older employees, say experts

Embracing older employees and all they have to offer is the way forward for employers

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In with the new, while accommodating the old, could be the only way forward for businesses today.

With Canada’s seniors population (65 years plus) outnumbering children, according to the 2016 Statistics Canada census—and retirement pushed off further and further—the pressure is on to help older workers stay relevant, in addition to recruiting top talent.

Though our average retirement age sits at about 63, there has been a steady increase in older generations staying in the workforce. According to a 2018 labour force report, Canadians aged 55 plus accounted for 37.9 per cent of the working population. On a year-over-year basis, this group had the fastest rate of employment growth compared with other demographic groups. As of 2015, one in five (or 1.1 million) Canadians 65 years and older reported working, the highest recorded since 1981.

POINT OF VIEW

Stats in mind, some believe that our youth-obsessed outlook and strides to adapt the workplace for next generations (think millennials) is shadowing the value of older employees. It’s a lost opportunity that has everything to do with ageism, suggests Cathie Brow, senior vice president of human resources and communications with Revera, a leading owner, operator and investor in the senior living sector.

“There’s a lot of talk about how to adapt to millennials and far less on how to adapt to people as they age—50 or 60 plus,” she says. “It’s important for businesses to take advantage of what [this] employment market has to offer. Older Canadians actually have a lot to contribute.”

Ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice in Canada.”

Argued as being an accepted form of discrimination, ageism comes in many forms from the “senior’s moment” jokes to “you’re too experienced” insinuations during a job interview to “when are you going to retire” workplace inquiries. It can be nuanced, unintentional, and difficult to prove.

“Ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice in Canada,” says Brow. “We recognize what it means to be sexist when we don’t intend to be. We recognize what it means to be racist when we don’t intend to be. Similarly, I think we need to recognize what it means to be ageist. The existence of ageism is real.”

DAY IN THE LIFE

Rob MacLean, a senior corporate communications professional with 20 years in the business, knows this first hand. Over the last five years, he’s held three top communications roles with notable companies, all of which let him go without cause due to restructuring and subsequent layoffs. A “normal part” of working life today that you have to be able to move through, says MacLean.

“In advertising and within the marketing communications industry, age discrimination is very real and takes many forms. Without a doubt, the industry is toxically youth obsessed to the point where about five per cent of the workforce in the agency sector are over 50. So for me, it means less opportunity, it impacts my job prospects.”

“It’s almost embedded in some of the language in the workforce: ‘we want a digital native—someone who grew up on computers.’”

The 57-year-old Torontonian feels his age has played a factor in getting and losing these gigs. While on the job search, MacLean has been outright told that he is “too senior” or “over-qualified”—industry code for “older and pricy”, he says. “I’m hired for my seniority and experience. I’m being hired precisely because of my past achievements and expertise. But the difference is that I’m now being brought in on short-term contracts to be a fixer,” he adds.

MYTHS ABOUND

Sentiments like too old and pricy, are myths, says Wanda Morris, vice president of advocacy for CARP, that need to be dispelled. Morris points to other common misperceptions, including older workers aren’t tech savvy, will have more absences, health issues and limited longevity compared to their younger contemporaries. Overall, they will cost the business more.

“It’s almost embedded in some of the language in the workforce: ‘we want a digital native—someone who grew up on computers,’” Morris points out. “People want to invest in employees who are here for the longer term. Truth is, there is much more turnover among young people than older workers, who tend to be more loyal…they [employers] may be pursuing the wrong group of people.”

“My bad luck is that the industry today is undergoing tremendous transformation and upheaval.”

The fact is older Canadians in the workforce are a living reality. They are not just staying for financial reasons—in fact they often take roles for less pay. They are active, healthy and simply not ready to throw the towel in on their professional lives be it in a new or seasoned role, full or part time.

“It’s going to be an issue that just keeps coming up more and more in the workplace because people have to work longer, because they want to work longer,” says employment lawyer, Doug MacLeod. “They want to keep active, keep the brain operating…in a capacity where they can mentor people and use their institutional knowledge to help move an organization forward.”

FORWARD THINKING

MacLean, who is married with a five-year-old son, believes his industry requires an overhaul to its existing business model and a shift in priorities. Embracing senior staff, like himself, should be a part of that.

“My bad luck is that the industry today is undergoing tremendous transformation and upheaval,” he shares.  “As long as agencies charge by the hour, as long as the role of corporate communications is seen as an expense and not a valuable business driver, working in a traditional agency position, as someone over 50, is less and less likely.”

Moving forward—which may include pursuing his own consulting business—Maclean is keeping his focus in that direction, while staying abreast of the industry shifts and trends, and remembering the value his experience and expertise can bring to any business. 

“My narrative is a positive one, full of innovation, results and awards,” he says. “I think a good employer, one worth working for, will see my achievements, read my references, and see my potential to benefit their business.” 

FOR MORE

Determine whether working into retirement is in the cards for you using CPA Canada’s Managing Your Finances session or get tips on how to successfully finance your small business with CPA Canada’s Financial Survival for Entrepreneurs session.