At the start of 2020, most HR professionals had a sense of what to expect in the coming year – a highly competitive labor market, the growing need for soft skills, and increasing investments in AI and automation. Then COVID-19 happened. While the recovery may be slow, regardless of how long it takes, human capital remains the most valuable asset organizations have as they navigate a complex future.
Many have written about how HR leaders need to seize this opportunity to double down on diversity and inclusion as companies rebuild. Diversity of gender, race, abilities, orientation and faith builds high-performing organizations, healthier communities, and more engaged employees. One aspect of diversity that often gets overlooked is age, yet age is the one element of diversity we all eventually share. Age diversity remains important in challenging times. Here are three reasons why:
Longevity is transforming not only the workforce but also how we think about talent. In 1919, the average life expectancy in the US was 54. By 2019, it had risen to 79. This 25-year gain in longevity over the course of 100 years is unprecedented, and the trend does not appear to be slowing. Half of all children born in the US after 2007 will live to be 104. This increase in longevity, coupled with declining birth rates, means that the workforce as a whole is aging. By 2024, workers 50 and over will make up 35% of the US workforce.¹ And in 2021, the first wave of Millennials will start to turn 40, the age at which they fall under the protection of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
While increased longevity means workers will need to work longer, the spread of ages in the available labor pool mean that organizations will need to recruit workers across the age spectrum in order to continue to grow. Another effect longer working lives will have is that employees will need to continually refresh skills, and take longer breaks to provide the stamina needed for a work life that spans 50-60 years.
One way to accommodate this is to create flexible pathways in and out of the workforce that enable alternating periods of work, education, and rest. Enabling better transitions among these phases and tighter connections with departing and returning employees will allow organizations access to a larger pool of talent overall.
An age-diverse workforce promotes stability, both in terms of turnover, and the ability to weather adversity. Research shows that in age-inclusive organizations turnover goes down – not only for older workers but for younger workers as well. For one thing, mid and late career workers exhibit lower rates of unexpected turnover than younger workers overall – 29% of workers 50+ say they are looking for or open to finding a new job, versus 49% of workers under 50.
But additionally, older workers have lived through periods of upheaval in the past, and can provide a balanced view of how to react to change. According to research from AARP on mentoring, younger workers cite wisdom and help navigating the workplace as the biggest things older workers have taught them.
Mixed-age teams fuel innovation and are more productive. One of the strongest arguments for recruiting an age-diverse workforce is that research shows age diversity has a positive impact on team productivity and performance.² This is partially due to the fact that diversity in general increases innovation and boosts organizational outcomes; but age diversity in particular appears to boost productivity at the team level, likely due to the effect of “knowledge spillover” – team members share knowledge gained from past experiences, which in turn spark new solutions to problems while avoiding costly mistakes.
This combination of tacit knowledge – for example, a nuanced understanding of the regulatory environment, or the anticipation of unforeseen roadblocks – with new ideas and approaches often results in a quicker path to success. Perhaps this is why the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that the average age of innovators across a range of industries at the time of their innovation is 47 – these are not hoodie-wearing wunderkinds (though those do exist as well).
Unfortunately, outdated beliefs about aging often persist in ways that diminish the impact an age-diverse workforce can have on the bottom line. Including age as an element in diversity and inclusion can help shift the culture and give companies a competitive advantage. Organizations perform best when workers of all ages are included and empowered to contribute their unique skills and perspectives.
¹ Bureau of Labor Statistics
² Leveraging the Value of an Age-Diverse Workforce, SHRM, 2016