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Flexible Policies for a More Inclusive Workplace

November 16, 2020

Diversity is Not Enough

By: Christian González-Rivera, Director of Strategic Policy Initiatives and Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, Executive Director, Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging, Hunter College, CUNY

One of the most visible signs of progress in the United States today is the increasing recognition by employers of the value of a diverse workplace. Multiple surveys have shown that employers recognize that a more diverse workforce allows them to tap into a broader range of experiences to increase competitiveness and many also see diversifying their workforce as a moral issue.

older woman on computer
The push towards diversity and inclusion rarely includes workers over the age of 50.

In more recent years, greater awareness of persistent gaps in wages and promotion opportunities by gender and race have highlighted the extent to which many workplaces do not provide equitable opportunities to people of different backgrounds, even if their workforces appear to be diverse. Women who balance childrearing or caretaking with work may see their promotion opportunities curtailed, while people of different races or ethnicities may not be perceived to be a cultural ‘fit’ for upper management positions. These imbalances show that it is not enough to promote diversity without also fostering inclusion through practices that affirm differences among employees and provide multiple paths to success.

But this push towards diversity and inclusion rarely includes workers over the age of 50. While almost all large employers have diversity strategies that include race and gender, only 8 percent include age as a factor.[i] Many companies’ stated reason for adapting diversity and inclusion strategies is to increase their competitive edge through harnessing diverse perspectives. Yet it seems that persistent myths about older workers prevent them from seeing age diversity as a contributor to their competitive bottom line.

While almost all large employers have diversity strategies that include race and gender, only 8 percent include age as a factor.

According to AARP surveys, many employers believe that older workers don’t easily learn new skills or adapt to new technology. Research evidence shows the opposite; older workers can learn as well as younger ones if given the opportunity to do so. Moreover, older workers are actually more adept on average than younger ones at crucial 21st century workplace skills like effective communication, team building, mentoring, and problem solving. Employers also fear that older workers will increase their group health insurance costs. Here the evidence is more mixed; insurance plans for older workers without dependents may be about as costly as those for younger workers with children. And finally, while some older workers have higher salaries due to longer tenure, this cost may be worth it considering higher productivity due to experience and much lower turnover compared to younger workers.

Whatever employers’ misconceptions about older workers may be, the fact is that the share of the workforce that is older is already increasing. One of every four workers is projected to be age 55 or older by 2024, compared to just 12 percent in 1994.[ii] A more intergenerational workforce is already a reality. At the same time, a grim lesson learned during the last recession in 2008-2009 is that older workers who lose their jobs will likely be hunting for another job for months or even years afterward. Of those who do eventually find employment, just 10 percent end up earning as much as or more than they did at the job they lost.[iii] This is likely to happen again during the nation’s recovery from the COVID recession.

Employers can start creating a culture of inclusivity by addressing ageism alongside other –isms.

Employers and U.S. society can no longer afford to be complacent about fully including older workers. Job one will be to overcome ageist attitudes based on stereotypes, just as employers continue to struggle with the misogyny, racism, and homophobia that bars thousands of workers from equitable access to opportunity. Employers can start creating a culture of inclusivity by addressing ageism alongside other –isms in trainings, small group discussions, and everyday conversation.

But there are also specific policies that employers can adopt to make workplaces better places to grow older. These policies are not intended to force people to work longer until later ages. Rather, they are designed to ensure that formal employment remains an option across the life course for people who need or desire to work.

Protect the legal rights of workers particularly threatened by COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the ageism-related barriers that many older workers already face. Employers have expressed concern about hiring or retaining older workers for fear that they might complicate plans to return to in-person work. However, careful analysis of COVID-19 death data shows that the mortality rate of people in their 50s and 60s without certain underlying conditions is no higher than the average for all people.[iv] In fact, across all ages, the presence of underlying conditions ranging from diabetes to certain autoimmune diseases is a much more relevant risk factor for increased morbidity and mortality as a result of COVID-19 infection than age. Older workers remain protected against discrimination on the basis of age by relevant laws in their jurisdictions – pandemic or no pandemic.[v] In light of the particular threat posed by the pandemic to workers with certain underlying conditions, the legal framework created for people with disabilities applies: employers must make reasonable accommodations for workers of any age who have – or are perceived to have – heightened risk as a result of infection. This allows such workers to continue to pursue their livelihoods without having to choose between working and putting their lives in danger.

Give employees flexibility around when and where they work.

The stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have provided a crash course in flexible work for two in four workers in the U.S. and their employers. While the specific conditions of the pandemic have created their own challenges, having greater control over their own work schedules can benefit many people. Flexible work schedules, the option to work from home, and paid family leave policies allow parents to care for their young children, caretakers to attend to family members in need, and students to pursue education while not forfeiting their jobs. These policies also benefit workers who may want to shift their work-life balance later in life or ease into retirement. Yet maximizing those potential benefits requires significantly shifting traditional concepts of what it means to be “at work.” A typical work week contains activities that must be synchronized with others, like meetings, and individual work that does not necessarily depend on the schedules of others. This still allows for more flexibility in the workday compared to the traditional framework of working outside the home.

Design workplaces for accessibility.

woman working from home
Employers should be helping their employees to work as well and as comfortably as possible at home.

Good layouts and ergonomic furniture create a more comfortable work environment for everyone, especially those with physical limitations. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an additional burden on employers to ensure that their workplaces have adequate ventilation and that each worker has enough space to prevent the spread of disease. This is especially crucial for older workers and workers with underlying health conditions, but also keeps all workers and their people back home safe. For those for whom their workplace is also their home for the duration of the pandemic, employers should be helping their employees to work as well and as comfortably as possible at home. Especially important is ensuring that workers have access to the equipment, connectivity, and technical support they need.

Invest in existing employees.

Over the past two decades as jobs become more complex and technological advances more frequent, employers have been identifying a skills gap formed when the skills they need in their workers outpace the skills readily available in the talent pool. As a result, on-the-job training has recently seen a resurgence after years of decline.[vi] Older workers can be great employees to train since they are much more likely than younger workers to remain with their employer. While more than half of workers ages 55 and above have been with their current employer for more than a decade, just one third of workers ages 40 to 44 and a quarter of workers ages 35 to 39 have been with their current employer for that long.[vii] This longer tenure means that older workers are more likely to use their experience with their employer to lattice new skills learned onto their role within the company rather than leverage them to seek a position elsewhere.

Create a workplace that prioritizes cooperation over competition.

Knowledge sharing across workers is difficult in a work environment where employees feel that they are in constant competition with one another for promotions and even for maintaining their jobs. Normalizing formal and informal peer to peer training and sharing credit for success and failure among the members of work groups can help create an environment where people share their skills for the good of the whole organization. Fostering a culture of formal and informal mentorships is one of the most effective ways to accomplish this.

Normalize shifting and evolving work roles.

An inclusive workplace provides workers with flexible work options that facilitate their ability to balance work with major life events like the birth of a child or taking on caregiving duties. Renegotiating the terms of employment in the face of these changes should be seen as a renewed commitment to work, not as a break from work responsibilities. Preparing for retirement should be no different. Managers and human resource departments should counsel workers of any age about their options for shifting their work responsibilities and adjusting their compensation packages accordingly, including older workers interested in gradually transitioning into retirement. Treating phased retirement as just another way to commit to work would reduce the pressure that older workers might feel to adopt an all-or-nothing approach to work, while removing the stigma that younger employees might experience if they desire a shift in their job responsibilities for other life reasons.

Government also has a role in fostering workplaces that are more inclusive of older workers. For instance, decoupling health insurance and employment through universal health care would remove a major, age-differentiated driver of benefits costs from hiring decisions. A phased transition into retirement could become the norm for workers if disincentives to work while receiving benefits were eliminated from Social Security and private pension plans.

Today’s workplaces are more diverse racially, ethnically, genderwise, and generationally, among other dimensions. This makes it imperative that employers pay attention to the differential opportunities available to people with different backgrounds. An inflexible workplace is more likely to favor the kind of people who have been the traditional winners in the economy: younger, white, middle- and upper-class men who are less likely than older people, women, and lower-income people to experience life circumstances that would create pressure at work. Fostering an inclusive workplace through changes in workplace cultural attitudes and by adopting specific inclusive policies would expand opportunity to more kinds of people and would allow employers to reap the benefits that come with a diversity of modes of thinking and experience.

An inflexible workplace is less likely to favor older people, women, and lower-income workers who bring diversity of thinking and experience.

Multi gen co workers


Specific policies mentioned in this article have been researched in-depth as part of the Age Smart Employer initiative led by Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, currently the executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College, CUNY. A compendium of specific practices with citations to relevant research is available: Finkelstein, Ruth, Sheila Roher, and Shauneequa Owusu (2013).

[i] Trawinski, Lori A. (2016). Leveraging the Value of an Age-Diverse Workforce. SHRM Foundation.

[ii]  Morisi, Teri (2016). Why More People Ages 55+ are Working. U.S. Department of Labor Blog.

[iii]  Johnson, Richard W. and Peter Gosselin (2018). How Secure is Employment at Older Ages? Urban Institute.

[iv]  González-Rivera, Christian and Ruth Finkelstein (2020). Who Should Delay Returning to Work? CWI Labs. Center for Workforce Inclusion.

[v] Legal guidance issued in July 2020 by the New York City Human Rights Commission clearly details how all relevant age discrimination laws are still in effect. Guidance available at NYC Commission on Human Rights (2020). Legal Enforcement Guidance on Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Age. A COVID-19 supplement goes into further detail, NYC Commission on Human Rights (2020). Legal Enforcement Guidance on Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Age COVID-19 Supplement.

[vi] Gurchiek, Kathy (2020). Look for These Training Trends in 2020. SHRM.

[vii] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Table 2. Percent of employed wage and salary workers 25 years and over who had 10 years or more of tenure with their current employer by age and sex, selected years, 2010-2020.