10 things to do for an "ageless" workplace

Singapore's Speaker of Parliament, Madam Halimah Yacob, in a recent media interview said: 'We are still very much an ageist society'. Rick Koh, co-founder of the 'Ageless in Singapore' social movement, shares tips on how we can start to act 'agelessly'

In one of my former places of work in Singapore, someone suggested adjourning to the popular nightspot Zouk after work to chill out. A 20-something executive, asked one of our colleagues, a 40-something year-old: “Do you know where Zouk is?” when, in fact, the older colleague had been present at Zouk’s opening in the 1990s when the younger colleague was still a child.

This anecdote signals a mild form of workplace ageism – that someone who is above 40 is perceived to be most probably not part of the “Zouk crowd”. A colleague who is older in age is immediately assumed to be a whole range of things – less trendy, less informed, generally less able and attractive. This might just be amusing if there were no further manifestations of such mindsets. But the real situation is worse than that.

Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament, Madam Halimah Yacob, in a recent media interview said: “We are still very much an ageist society”. Employers, she reveals, still tend to pre-judge and discriminate against older applicants.  Madam Halimah, who chairs the People’s Action Party’s seniors advocacy group “PAP.SG”, has for many years been active in the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP). The alliance, led by Singapore’s Manpower Ministry, brings together employers, unions and the government to tackle workplace issues including age discrimination.

Across the globe, it has taken this long for man’s oldest preoccupation to be seen as an issue – ageism, acting in ways that limit the life choices of others simply because of age – when other causes such as the campaigns against sexism and racism are much older.

How can we reduce ageism? The infant social movement “Ageless in Singapore” is based on the belief that we should work towards an “ageless society” – one that does not place barriers in the way of older persons from realising their aspirations.

In an “ageless society”, people, regardless of age, feel confident to stay economically active as long as they want to, in salaried jobs or as free agents. They feel empowered to find fulfilment in achievement, to build their self-worth. 60 is the new 40.

For the rest of society, the payoffs from maximising human resources by embracing the contributions of older persons include greater productivity and quality of life. “Small talent pool” is among the biggest overstatements of the last 50 years.

In the workplace, you can never be too young to start to act “agelessly”. How? Here are just 10 suggestions:

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Whenever you start thinking that a colleague is too old to do something – stop. Look before you leap – to any wrong conclusions about what people can achieve. People often surprise you with what they can do, if you would only let them.
  2. Respect wisdom and experience. Not every older colleague automatically deserves respect, unfortunately. But there is value and wisdom in experience, something for others to learn from in other people, almost everywhere you care to look.
  3. Understand generational differences.  An effective older employee is not just someone who is savvy with technology, but someone who understands generational differences. Studies have shown that older staff are better able to be patient and adaptable in working with colleagues of different age groups. Take time to hone this skill, and value those in your workplace who have it.
  4. Call for time-outs. If your colleagues say or do anything that holds you back from achieving more at work on account of your age, don’t hesitate to draw them aside. Explain gently why they should also try acting more “agelessly” in the workplace, and give others space to do so too.
  5. Take a chance. If you’re an employer, whenever you start thinking that an existing or potential employee is too old to do something – stop. He may be stronger than he looks; or she may be smarter than you think.
  6. Work smart. In the workplace, let’s really redesign jobs and reward fairly, for a better match between ability and job demands. Then we might not need to see so many workers around, usually cleaners, who look older than our grandparents.
  7. Moderate the "worship of the young". That’s how Singapore has been described by experts on ageing issues, in a recent study on end-of-life care. It’s about how most business initiatives are geared towards youth and marketed with a strong youth bias. Often, older people are invisible or shown as stereotypes. So, if you’re in the business of producing promotional videos, ads or other public communications that could feature people of all ages, please include older persons too. Don’t just show them hunched and moving slowly, or busy only with qigong or bird-singing. Also, most workplace mentorship schemes are focused on mentees rather than mentors – it’s usually more about how to help younger colleagues excel rather than drawing the best from older ones to contribute to the effectiveness of the whole office. It’s time to shift the balance.
  8. Be brave. A study by TAFEP found that one concern of younger supervisors when it came to hiring older staff was the fear that they might not be able to effectively manage someone closer to their parent’s age – hence, some might steer clear of such situations altogether by not hiring anyone of that age group to begin with.  So, don’t be afraid to manage older staff. You could be losing out on a lot of talent.
  9. Beware the “curse of kindness”. Sometimes, supervisors who want to show more consideration for older staff may deliberately assign them easier tasks. Initially, the older employee may even appreciate such a considerate boss. But this can be self-defeating in the end. When performance appraisals come round, naturally, these older colleagues will do less well, because they were denied opportunity to achieve more. So, don’t become guilty of such “dysfunctional kindness”. 
  10. Make your mark every day. Above all, to work and live “agelessly”, live each day adding meaning and mastery to your work life. Make this your end in mind in the Human Resource Department – to help all your staff achieve this on a personal basis. Taken together, the outcome will take the organisation to a whole new level. Pursue purpose, not pure profit. Exercise leadership. Leave something behind – a major project, lasting influence, a broader contribution to society… Fulfilment makes you feel most alive – and most forgetful about age. Now, where were we…?

Written by:
Rick Koh, CEO of Integrative CSR Consulting. He is also co-founder of the “Ageless in Singapore” social movement, which is organising its third international conference on 26 March 2014 on building an “ageless society”.

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