Older Workers are Good for Business

September 1, 2017

The traditional arc of a career used to be described as something like this: after getting some qualifications, you get a job and progressively move up in the workforce until you retire. However, career jobs are rarely available these days, whereas retirement plans are put off by many Canadian workers, either out of desire or necessity. These changes create new challenges for older workers to getting and keeping a job.

Canadians are living longer than ever before. In 1961, life expectancy at birth was 74.2 for women and 68.4 for men; in 2013 it reached 83.8 for women and 79.6 for men. With this revolution in longevity, retirement is becoming far more difficult to finance. As a result, many Canadians are choosing to postpone retirement – especially with the decline of mandatory retirement in Canada and the inadequacy of retirement savings – and are opting to continue working for as long as they can. However, for many older workers, staying in or re-entering the workforce can be a Sisyphean task.

Workers aged 55 to 64, and 65 and over, face the longest periods of unemployment. The reasons why older workers are dismissed or simply not hired often come down to the presumed higher cost associated with their employment. Many employers believe that it is just too expensive to hire, train and retain older workers. But some of these presumptions are rooted in inaccurate ageist stereotypes. Furthermore, they may disproportionately impact older workers. For example, it is fair to say that older adults on average have higher health care costs, but it is not right to say that their employment costs are just as high. Even though wages increase over the course of a career, job performance or productivity typically increases as well. Older workers also have higher retention rates and lower turnover, which gives employers who hire them more time to recoup their training investments in them. When you take all of this together, it is not justifiable to not hire an older worker because of the cost.

In fact, rather than being a burden on a business, older workers bring many benefits to the workplace. In addition to superior job performance, the American Association of Retired Persons reports that older workers are also effective in leadership, detail-oriented tasks, organization, listening, writing skills and problem solving. They further have a strong work ethic, work well in team settings with minimal supervision and are more likely to remain with employers for longer periods. Beyond outperforming their younger counterparts due to their extra years of experience, older workers also enable the transfer of a business’s knowledge, skills and experience to its younger employees.

Despite the many benefits of older workers, age discrimination in hiring practices continues to be widespread in Canada. Older workers perceive ageism as a barrier to employment, and indeed some employers hold ageist views that negatively impact the opportunities for older adults. In general, employers genuinely appreciate the experience and expertise that older workers bring to the workplace. But their decisions are often influenced by implicit and unconscious bias.

Since bias is often unconscious, it is much more difficult to identify age discrimination. Often, cases where implicit bias is a factor in the hiring or non-hiring of an older worker come down to subjective impressions such as having the right chemistry, finding a candidate who is a good fit, or another candidate being offered the position because they were more energetic. These reasons are not ageist per se, but they are not specific or objective criteria for filling a position. In cases such as these, even well-intentioned employers can discriminate against older workers.

There are also systemic biases that make it more difficult for older workers to find employment opportunities. For example, older workers are provided with fewer training opportunities and less disability-related accommodation. The percentage of workers who receive no accommodation also increases with age. Further, age discrimination cases require that a complaint be brought forward in order to be adjudicated. However, systemic discrimination is far more subtle than the evidentiary demands of the courts. All of this makes it extremely difficult for an older worker to compile enough evidence to be able to prove age discrimination in a typical legal proceeding.

So, what is to be done?

Today, in Ontario and across Canada, the duty to accommodate older workers is a reactive one, at least in practice: an older worker may request accommodation but if refused, he or she has to file an age discrimination complaint, and if successful, their employer may be required to accommodate their special needs. That approach puts most of the responsibility on the older worker. Rather, the employer should be required to prove that their hiring process was equitable and they provided reasonable accommodation to their employee. Furthermore, as the Supreme Court of Canada held in a sex discrimination case involving a female firefighter, employers must design systems with diverse groups in mind, rather than focus on ad hoc responses to individual requests.

This brings us to the second point. A broader duty, similar to those under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, should be imposed upon employers to set policies on accommodating age-related needs apart from disability-related needs (such as fatigues, outdated skills, and transition into retirement). Employers should also promote age diversity in the workplace through, for example, age-friendly design and layout of the work environment, flexible work arrangements, part-time opportunities, bridge positions and training and retraining opportunities.

We should be proud that improved health and medical innovations have enabled us to remain healthy well into our later years. On Labour Day, let’s ensure that older adults can contribute to workplaces that support them and accommodate their needs.

Pnina Alon-Shenker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Law & Business and the founding Academic Director of the Ryerson Law & Business Clinic at Ryerson University. She thanks Allan McKee for his assistance in writing this article.

Allan McKee