The Generation Game: age diversity and the workplace
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The Generation Game: age diversity and the workplace

Stereotypical assumptions about older workers can hamper employees’ ability to prosper later in their careers. But the (re)insurance sector also needs to get to grips with age diversity to avoid a skills gap

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Age diversity - Key takeaways:

• The proportion of employees of 50 and above in the workplace is increasing

• Older workers typically endure longer period of unemployment and face significant pay cuts when re-employed

• Age 50 is typically used as the starting point for defining ‘older workers’ and is when age discrimination starts to take effect

• Only a fifth of UK employers currently have a board-level strategy in place to manage age diversity

• With five different generations in the workplace now, mentoring schemes can help with improving inter-generational communication, sharing skills/experience and training future leaders

• Older workers’ skills and experience will prove more valuable than ever in the current economic crisis

One of the ironies of the language around notions of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is that it may, from time to time, contain ideas or phrases that are in themselves, non-diverse and non-inclusive in nature.

Take the phrase ‘male, pale and stale’, for example, which is justifiably used to describe the situation where senior roles in business, politics and other areas of society are predominantly occupied by white men of middle age and above.

But that last word – stale – hints at an area of prejudice which is perhaps less prominent currently than, say, sexual discrimination, racism, or homophobia. I’m speaking, of course, of age discrimination, or ‘ageism’ as it commonly termed.

Most people would agree on the importance of creating greater opportunities for young people – whether through access to good schooling, a place at university or in vocational training, or that vital first job that sets you on your career path.

But while early career support is vital to the creation of a vibrant and diverse workforce, it would be a mistake to lose sight of the wealth of knowledge, skills and experience held by those workers who could be described as being part of that ‘stale’ demographic - people from ‘middle age’ to those approaching what was previously termed ‘retirement age’.

The changing demographic

With more people choosing to work further beyond that traditional retirement age, however, there is inevitably going to be an increasing proportion of older employees in the workplace.

In order to get the best out of all their employees, companies are going to be under increasing pressure to formalise a strategy for more effective inter-generational working.

A 2019 study Hiscox ‘Ageism in the Workplace’, which surveyed 400 US full-time employees over the age of 40, found that around two-thirds (67%) of those aged 40-65 plan to continue to work after they turn 66.

Citing data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics published by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hiscox related the estimate that by 2024, workers aged 55 and older will represent 25% of the US workforce, with the fastest annual growth rates among those aged 65 and older.

The UK insurance sector’s professional body, the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), in a 2018 publication on multigenerational workplaces, titled ‘Talented generations’, cited information from a 2015 Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) report which revealed that the employment rate for people aged 50 to 64 in the UK grew more than 14%, to 69.6%, in the 30 years to 2015.

The employment rate for people aged 65 and over also grew, doubling from 4.9% to 10.2% over the same period.

And the proportion of people aged 70-74 in employment also nearly doubled in the 10 years preceding the report, from 5.5% to 9.9%.

The DWP report noted that the largest increases in employment rates from 1984 to 2015 were for women aged 60-64, up from 17.7% to 40.7%, and for women aged 55-59, up from 48.6% to 68.9%.

Age discrimination

However, a sobering finding from the Hiscox study is that nearly half of the workers it surveyed (44%) reported that they or someone they know had experienced age discrimination in the workplace, and more than a third [36%] felt their age had prevented them from getting a job since turning 40.

EEOC data cited in the report says that in the US the number of age-related discrimination charges filed with employers and the EEOC by workers aged 65+ doubled from 1990 to 2017, reaching 18,376 cases in 2017.

The EEOC says that older workers typically endure the longest period of unemployment compared to other age groups and are likely to take a significant pay cut if they become re-employed.

“For people who get laid off in their late forties, it can be really hard to get another job at that same pay level,” says Erik Johnson, deputy active underwriter of Victor Syndicate 2288, and a committee member of Inclusion@Lloyds.

“If you get laid off in your mid-50s, it seems like you might as well just become a freelance consultant, because it’s a real challenge for a lot of older people to come back to the workplace after redundancy.”

In its ‘Talented generations’ report the CII outlines considerations for employers with respect to five generational groups in the workplace: Maturists (73+), Baby Boomers (57-72), Generation X (37-56), Generation Y/millennials (22-36) and the emergent Generation Z (under 22).

Age 50 is typically used as the starting point for definitions of the ‘older worker’ and, according to Chris Brooks, head of policy at charity Age UK: “There’s evidence that that’s when age discrimination really starts to take effect - although it obviously varies depending on who you are and what your job is.”

“That’s when you start to hear of people [experiencing] really overt age discrimination - that they are too old to apply for a job, or that they should be thinking about retiring rather than going for a promotion,” he adds.

Brooks says Age UK is currently assessing the fallout from the pandemic in terms of it will mean for the UK labour market and says that polling from other organisations indicates that the over-60s, alongside the under-25s, are likely to be one of the worst affected groups in terms of potential redundancy, furloughing or loss of income.

“A lot of older workers don’t have access to flexible working and maybe have other issues, like a caring responsibility. So when it comes to who is picked for redundancy or furlough, those things can have a bearing.”

“Right now it’s a perfect storm, because the [insurance] industry is under cost pressures and challenges, which I believe may lead to older people being let go,” says Johnson. “We need to have a voice for them, because older people have a role in the workplace.”

Overcoming the age bias

So what stands between employers and a truly age-diverse workforce?

According to Age UK’s Brooks “It’s actually quite rare that [employers] overtly tell people that they are too old for something”, but nonetheless he believes that there is still likely to be “a lot of unconscious bias” in relation to age.

More prevalent, perhaps, than overt discrimination is the existence of “a lot of bad practice” in workplaces, in Brook’s view.

For example, for those workers with caring responsibilities, “which is more likely to be older women, aged 50-65”, says Brooks, “they might be denied access to flexible working, which means they have to quit their job. That kind of thing is still really common”.

He says there is also a widespread issue with effective line management, with managers who perhaps don’t know how to deal with flexible working, or how to speak to colleagues about their future working or retirement plans.

“With age comes a whole host of preconceived notions; from professional ambition, to social-political ideas; but these are only assumptions and must be confronted in the same way we would any other forms of bias,” says Keith Richards, chief membership officer of the CII.

Future skills gap

Given the likelihood that workforces of the future are going to include a great proportion of older workers, as more people choose to work for longer, and bearing in mind that in the UK and other jurisdictions the law explicitly forbids forced retirement of older workers, employers need to get to grips with the notion of an age-diverse workforce.

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) has published some guidance on making the most of older workers’ skills and experience. It stresses the need for employers to “improve the way they recruit, train and retain older workers in the first place”.

However, the CIPD notes, older workers looking to enter or come back to the workplace typically find it harder than other age groups to find new employment. This can be a result of discrimination or bias on the part of employers and recruiters, but may also be due to a lack of flexible working, a disability or a long-term health condition.

The CIPD is blunt in its assessment that UK employers are likely to face a skills and labour shortage if age diversity in the workplace isn’t addressed. However, it says, research suggests that only around a fifth of UK employers currently have a board-level strategy in place to manage age diversity.

As the CII’s Richards points out: “The range of skills our colleagues of all ages bring is broad and, if properly embraced, can produce many benefits for an organisation.”

Bridging the generation gap

Aon has a number of business resource groups devoted to various D&I topics, including one in the UK called Linking Generations, which is focused on employees in mid- to late career stages. However, the group is a more recent formation than the broker’s existing gender or LGBT groups, for example, perhaps reflecting a wider reality that companies are catching up on age as a diversity issue more slowly than in other areas.

“What comes out of that is [the question of] how you have a more even focus on the different parts of what inclusion is about,” says Dominic Christian, global chairman of reinsurance solutions at Aon, chair of the Inclusion@Lloyd's group and a leading light of the D&I festival, Dive In.

Katherine Conway, global head of diversity, inclusion and community affairs at Aon, says talking about age diversity is nonetheless an integral part of “driving an inclusive culture”.

“When I started work only the most senior people spoke in meetings - and if you were young and junior or new to the team you felt you had to wait to be asked to contribute,” she recalls.

“When we talk about diversity we talk more about diversity of thinking and [getting] different perspectives. We try to make sure the older generation is welcoming the voice of the younger and listening [to their] perspective.”

Aon is also making it mandatory to have diverse interview panels. “[By that] I mean diversity by age, just to get that different perspective when we’re hiring people,” says Conway.

As Conway notes: “There’s five generations in the workplace now! There’s a lot of apprentices at 17-18 and they do work in a very different way.”

She says that whereas, at the start of her career, “feedback was something you probably got once a year in your annual appraisal”, younger generations are used to a greater frequency of feedback – whether through social media activity or workplace interactions, “so we need to continue that more regular feedback loop”.


According to Victor’s Johnson, the topic of age diversity and retaining older workers is “a very fraught area, because at the same time there are young people who are saying that you’re protecting Boomers’ jobs rather than making room for them”.

One key way in which those inter-generational frictions can be eased is through the sharing of skills and experience via a mentoring programme.

The CII has launched an e-mentoring platform where, Richards says: “Younger participants can access the sort of skills which are built with years of practical experience, and more mature participants can benefit from the technical skills and insights necessary to meet the consumer needs of today.”

Mentoring schemes are becoming more widespread across the insurance sector, and Aon’s Christian is a keen advocate.

“I remember coming into the industry when I was 26 and [finding] myself talking to people who were twice my age - and I found it very awkward,” he says

Programmes such as the reverse-mentoring scheme Aon operates can help to deliver “the critical factor” of enabling different generations within a workplace to communicate more easily, he suggests.

“I have a reverse mentor who is 25, and he tells me about his generation - particularly with respect to language,” Christian says. “One of the toughest things for my generation is language. Katherine [Conway] introduced a programme around appropriate trans and non-binary language, for instance. We all need to be more sensitive to language in that area – and you need to be in a setting where you feel you can make mistakes because you don’t quite know what the appropriate words are.”

Sharing the knowledge

Age UK’s Brooks says that businesses that exemplify good practice on age diversity are typically those that understand the value of the skills that older workers bring - and who don’t want to risk losing those skills.

According to Christian, in the (re)insurance sector older workers can bring technical competencies to the table which hold valuable lessons for younger generations.

“When I started in reinsurance, proportional treaties were the principal product. This moved to excess of loss in the 80s/90s and now proportional treaties have returned as a much stronger vehicle. So the training and experience of people of my generation in that particular product line tended to be greater for a while.”

He also cites the value of older employees’ experience in building new products.

“For example, when you’re trying to build the cyber or the IP market, can you learn the lessons of the directors’ and officers’ market? That product memory that people of my generation can bring is helpful.”

However, some of the valuable lessons older (re)insurance leaders can share with younger colleagues are their experience of the cycle and their ability to show confidence in a crisis, says Christian.

“While we’re going into the 1 January [reinsurance renewals], it’s going to be a difficult couple of months for brokers and underwriters as terms and conditions are thought about more intensely then they have been for some time,” he says.

“You need people who can build and re-think policy forms and so forth, and some of us have seen that a few times. It certainly helped me when people who were older than me had been through it.”

The CII runs an apprenticeship programme called Aspire which, it says, allows professionals of all ages “the opportunity to retrain in a sector whose services have never been in greater need”.

But there is also scope for on-the-job training which brings together different generations in a productive environment. Aon’s Conway references the company’s ‘NexCo’ initiative, which she says is “like an ExCo of our younger generation”.

“They sit in on meetings and contribute – which is fantastic learning for them and a great networking opportunity with senior leaders. It’s about exposing them to those different groups and conversations, [which is] something we’re going to have to work really hard at if we are all going to work more remotely.”

Retirement planning

As the CII’s ‘Talented generations’ guidance notes, in addition to the wider knowledge and experience held by older employees, many of those nearing retirement may be holding senior, decision-making positions – opening up another potential area of vulnerability for firms.

As Insider Engage previously explored in a separate article, succession planning is a critical element of business resilience for firms in the (re)insurance sector

However, as the CII notes, it’s not simply about identifying people who can step into senior roles.

“Succession planning is critical in ensuring the survival of knowledge and experience when older generations leave the organisation,” it says.

“This sort of knowledge has built up over years and years of working experience, and it is essential to the ongoing health and success of an organisation that this knowledge is harnessed in some way by the younger employees who are continuing to build on this legacy.”

This feeds back into the notion of an effective mentoring programme and initiatives like Aon’s NexCo where, in addition to older employees passing on their knowledge and skills, leaders can begin to prepare likely candidates for future leadership roles.

Remote working revolution

Returning to the present, however, a continuation of remote working and an increase in flexible working is likely to add to the challenge of improving age diversity in the workplace, as employees from different generations are prevented from mingling in a physical office.

As Aon’s Christian says: “The great challenges will be general wellbeing and self-learnings. The self-learnings for my generation you are probably meant to have acquired through decades of education and discussions like this. The challenge now is much more about how you build those connections and those self-learnings when you are in your twenties at the moment.”

Conway is optimistic about the benefits of remote/flexible working for older employees, however: “I think it offers a real opportunity for people to continue their careers longer. This period has been a massive opportunity for people to learn that they can work differently - we’ve jumped five years in five months, it’s been incredible.”

“People are embracing it – some of our older and more senior people have been saying how much they’ve been enjoying having dinner with their kids every night,” she adds.

It is also an opportunity for older generations of workers to flex their existing knowledge and talents, says Christian.

“Speaking for my generation, the value going forward that you bring in terms of the competencies we talked about earlier will be more considerable than it has been for some years, just because the [current] crisis is so significant.”

However, the CII’s Richards warns that (re)insurance businesses need to take action now to avoid the risk of valuable older employees making an early exit from the workforce.

“We encourage our members to support later life working,” he concludes.

CII: Supporting different generations at work

The Chartered Insurance Institute outlines some strategies that employers could consider “when seeking to support a multigenerational workforce and promote and enhance age diversity at work”:

• Hold age diversity workshops

• Introduce mentoring programmes (including reverse mentoring)

• Initiate training for new managers - particularly on how to lead older colleagues

• Adopt agile working solutions

• Review meetings to decide whether they are really needed and, if so, are in the most productive format for everyone involved

• Use a range of communication tools to best meet the needs of a multigenerational workforce

• Ensure recruitment processes are fair and inclusive for all candidates

• Explore phased retirement options

• Play to the strengths of individuals from all age ranges

• Consider using different learning methods when training staff, depending on their learning style

• Run staff forums to enable employees to discuss multigenerational issues

• Consider action learning as a tool to explore the views of different-aged people on work issues

• Improve employee engagement across the age ranges represented in a workplace

Source: The Chartered Insurance Institute