A positive attitude to age – a new diversity frontier? In conversation with Jane Storm, CPO at Saga

Never has the phase ‘diversity is a solution, not a problem to solve’ been more pertinent than in today’s labour market. In the UK, nearly 500,000 people have left the workforce since the pandemic, and job vacancies are at near-record highs across all sectors. But as businesses scramble for staff and compete for the best talent, most are ignoring an area of diversity that could provide a real and immediate solution: age.

This is hardly surprising. In the UK, over 55s control more than six trillion pounds in assets and nearly 70% of all UK household wealth – but in too many instances, this age group is at best underrepresented and at worst discriminated against. Indeed, research from 2021 found that one in three people currently experience age-based discrimination.

In advertising, for example, just 29% of campaigns feature characters over the age of 50, and only 12% of them are in lead roles – despite over 55s having the greatest purchasing power.

One leader who is passionate about changing the conversation around age is Jane Storm, Chief People Officer at insurance-to-cruises-to-personal finance business Saga. “Tackling ageism could be the next ‘Me Too’ movement, as interest in this demographic is growing rapidly,” she told me when we caught up earlier this month. “However, Saga has learnt that there is an opportunity to turn this on its head. People want to be appreciated for their experience.” Saga’s new marketing campaign, called “Experience is Everything” – with the mantra “I’m not old, I’m experienced” – wonderfully sums up the business’ fresh perspective on this older demographic.

In corporate settings, we know that older people are less likely to be hired than younger people, less likely to be given development opportunities, and less likely to be put up for promotion. If we apply an intersectional lens, opportunities shrink more for older women, and further still for older women from ethnic minority groups – a double, or triple whammy of discrimination. In a 2021 survey from Forbes, a staggering 80% of respondents said they had experienced some form of ‘gendered ageism’.

But today, most companies do not recognise age as an important aspect of their D&I agenda.  Recent research from MBS into the retail industry found that fewer than one third of D&I strategies include a specific focus on age. This drops to 19% in similar research we have carried out in hospitality, travel and leisure, and to just 17% in fashion.

Moreover, in July, an investigation from Drapers found that 56% of fashion employees feel they can’t speak to HR or management if they or a colleague were being treated unfairly on the basis of age. “There’s an opportunity for age to be far higher on the DEI agenda, enabling older colleagues to be valued for the brilliant experience that they bring.” reflected Jane.

“There’s an opportunity for age to be far higher on the DEI agenda, enabling older colleagues to be valued for the brilliant experience that they bring.”  – Jane Storm, CPO at Saga 

Addressing age discrimination not only makes businesses more equitable, but also enables business to access many commercial benefits of including older people at every level of an organisation. After all, as Jane tells me, it’s a myth that employees over fifty are past their peak: “your career can continue at a height for another twenty years or so,” she explained. “All the data shows you reach your peak at 55, and continue to operate with a rich combination of abstract thinking and experience coming together. This dynamic only starts to change well into your seventies.” Indeed, we know that the Queen, working into her nineties and with a full schedule and workload in her late eighties, was a wonderful role model here.

Jane Storm, CPO at Saga.

Combatting ageism in the workplace could have a huge impact on the  consumer sector’s labour crisis. A significant portion of the older employee base left the workforce in the wake of the pandemic – according to ONS data, one in four of furloughed people in the UK were over 55. Now, businesses must focus on attracting this group back to work.

Once they return, older people are also much less likely to move jobs than younger workers, making them more valuable from a retention standpoint.

Indeed, last month, Chair of the John Lewis Partnership Dame Sharon White suggested that the ‘great resignation’ should instead be considered as a ‘life reappraisal’, as “this is predominantly people in their fifties.” She encouraged the government to think of ways to support older people back into work, with policies like flexible retirement.

Additionally, businesses should rethink misconceptions about the ‘appropriate’ age and experience required for certain roles – at workforce, middle-management and executive level. Jane recalled one colleague, who had been looking for a front-line contact centre position for more than three months before she joined Saga. Time and time again, she’d been turned down on the basis of being ‘over-qualified’ – when all she wanted to do was to use her wealth of experience to serve customers.

Photo credit: Centre for Ageing Better.

In effect, the workplace has created a system in which moving ‘backwards’ is effectively impossible. After a few years on the executive committee, leaders often seek a change of pace and intensity. But instead of moving back into a ‘head of’ or director-level role, most leaders are left with no option but to exit formal employment and become a consultant or equivalent.

Older candidates are also frequently excluded from middle management and director level positions. Too often, these roles are thought of primarily as training grounds for more senior positions, so older candidates are not considered due to an insufficient “runway” for promotion. Many readers will know that it’s not uncommon to hear advice like “you have to be a director by forty” being given to up and coming executives – which is hardly helpful if you have passed that milestone!

In critical Board level hires, we also know that there is a strong bias to prioritise candidates who fall into the 45 to 55 age bracket. Indeed, in 2021, the average age of a CEO appointed to the FTSE 350 was 50, and the average age of a CFO was 49. Looking to hire critical leadership roles from such a tight age bracket perhaps means that businesses are missing out on best-in-class talent who can bring valuable experience to a role, particularly in these challenging times where possibly, to quote Saga, “Experience is Everything”. (I’ve written before on the value of ‘veteran’ executives, who have spent decades at the top of the industry and can apply past lessons to future challenges.)

So what can businesses do?

Changing mindsets around age and creating a truly inclusive culture is the first – and biggest – hurdle. “If you want to be an innovator in the workplace you have to have an inclusive culture,” reflected Jane. “Businesses have to find ways to bust the myths about ageism. It’s still too common to hear that older people won’t be able to cope with certain responsibilities, or else that they’re ‘over-qualified’ for open roles.  It’s simply about getting excited about the benefits that experienced colleagues and a truly multi-generational workforce can bring”.

“Saga now has comprehensive programmes around menopause, flexible working, mentoring, career development, and even paid grandparents leave to ensure they have age diversity at every level of the business.”

Specifically, businesses can put in place policies which facilitate inclusion among older people. For example, Saga now has comprehensive programmes around menopause, flexible working, mentoring, career development, and even paid grandparents leave to ensure they have age diversity at every level of the business.

“Our colleagues over fifty have at least another couple of decades of their career with us,” Jane explained, “so we’ve put frameworks in place to keep them engaged – just like you would with younger employees.” An important piece of the puzzle is flexible working. According to ONS data, 36% of older people looking to return to work after the pandemic see flexible working opportunities as the most important aspect of choosing a new job. This is followed by working from home (18%) and fitting their career around caring responsibilities (16%).

Jane Fonda in the H&M move
Jane Fonda is the face of the new H&M Move campaign. Photo credit: H&M.

Outside the workplace, we’re seeing gradual progress on perceptions of age from a brand and marketing perspective. Maltesers, for example, recently released an ad campaign poking fun at outdated views on age. In fashion, H&M signed up 84-year-old Oscar-winning actor and activist Jane Fonda to front its new “movewear” brand H&M Move, and in March, Farfetch made 65-year-old Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall the face of its spring 2022 campaign.

2022 is a unique period of time for us to address ageism in the consumer sectors. We need their spending power, and we need their labour. The dramatically rising cost of living will likely to push more older people to return to work, and it’s up to leaders to create an environment where this demographic is not forgotten – but actively included. As Jane eloquently sums up: “we have an opportunity to celebrate and understand age – recognising the value this brings to colleagues and customers alike.”

Elliott.goldstein@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup