Why You Should Never Overlook Older Workers

Older workers often feel they are overlooked or discriminated against because of their age. But could they be the answer to the candidate shortage in charities?


When you hear the word ‘diversity,’ what immediately comes to mind? In CharityJob’s 2018 study on this issue, just 9% of respondents mentioned age. Yet when asked, ‘Have you ever felt discriminated against at work?’ more than one in three (38%) cited discrimination by age, by far the most. This occurs at both ends of the scale—41% of those over 40 and 31% of those under 30 felt that they had faced age discrimination. At a time when many charities are facing a shortage of applicants for their vacancies, one answer may be closer than you think.

Job adverts including phrases like ‘dynamic and ambitious’ or ‘sociable and outgoing’ could put some people off applying, such as introverts or those with caring responsibilities. Only using images of young people can make older people may feel their application wouldn’t be welcome. Demanding a certain amount of experience can exclude younger people who have the skills to do the job. If you think doctors, police officers or referees are looking younger, this is the same issue. And if these details form criteria that are considered as part of the assessment of applicant fit, that could be age discrimination.

Age and employment

The young and old have had markedly different experiences of the pandemic, no more so than in the labour market. Recent work from the Institute of Employment studies shows the youngest and the oldest have been hardest hit by the crisis in terms of employment. Things are picking up for the youngest, but not older workers. Some now fear that workers of 50 and older made redundant after furlough could be ‘locked out of work’ due to ageism.

Change in employment by age – first 15 months of the crisis (Dec-Feb 2020 to Mar-May 2021) and most recent quarter (Mar-May 2021 to Jun-Aug 2021)

Change in employment by age

Change in employment by age

Source: IES

Long-term unemployment

Long-term unemployment causes scarring for those suffering it. Unemployment is considered long-term if it lasts more than six months for those under 25, or more than 12 months for those aged 25 and over. While current long-term unemployment is relatively low compared to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the recent increases are concerning. Those over 50 often become ‘inactive’ (retired, or not looking to work due to their health or caring responsibilities, among other reasons) rather than unemployed. But many would be willing to work.

Longterm unemployment by age

Long-term unemployment by age

Source: IES

Older workers

The rise in the number of those on payrolls aged 65 years old and above speaks to another issue in the labour market: some of those who would once have retired are continuing to work. For various reasons, a life of retirement might not be as affordable or appealing as before. One way that older workers are continuing their active working lives is through freelancing. Increased flexible and remote working can be of enormous benefit to older people or those with health conditions, allowing them to work longer than was the case before. This matters because those who leave the labour market early tend to be more financially insecure and have other poor outcomes. Women are also more negatively affected, with 18% of women aged 50 economically inactive, compared to less than 10% of men.

Flexible working and freelancing

There is much to be said for freelancing. New research from Ireland shows that ageism is less rife among freelancers than salaried employees. While before the pandemic two in three workers aged over 45 felt that they were discriminated against due to their age, that ageism does not appear to be as prevalent among freelancers. Further, freelance and contract workers tend to be paid better and enjoy greater job satisfaction. In Ireland, those over 60 are the highest earners among the self-employed and project workers.

There is much to be gained by employing more experienced heads, especially in such unpreceded times. Afterall, knowledge and expertise keep increasing with age, while drive and curiosity don’t diminish. Older workers may add cognitive diversity, bringing a greater range of experiences and expertise. City and Guilds is among the organisations that have highlighted the benefits that older workers can bring.

Charities should consider opening themselves up to the possibility of freelance and contract work. Doing so would allow access to a wider talent pool, given how well-suited older freelancers are to project work, especially when coupled with flexible working.

Older workers who were working entirely remotely said that they were planning to retire later than those not working remotely. This shows flexibility could be a really important factor in granting them access to jobs, and charities access to the people they need.

What you can do

Charities should never discriminate, or recruit according to anything other than ability to do the job. But you can take steps to reduce the challenges that some people might face in getting those jobs. Removing bias from adverts will help all applicants, and all employers. As charities look to bounce back after the pandemic, it might be that older workers, perhaps working freelance, are able to contribute more than before. The Centre for Ageing Better offers advice on how to make job ads inclusive and have published guidance for employers.

Offering flexible working in more jobs is one way that charities can tap into more talent of all ages. And don’t forget that age diversity should be considered as part of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Read CharityJob’s report on Diversity and Discrimination in the charity sector, more about what you can do to prevent discrimination and our Inclusive Hiring Guide for the Charity Sector for more tips.

Tags: attracting the right candidates, charity job, charity recruitment, charity sector, diversity, diversity and inclusion, diversity in recruitment, equality diversity and inclusion, flexible working

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About the author

Martin Rogers