| 11.02.2021

Jeff Hearn and Charlotta Niemistö: Include age as a factor in HR strategies

With recent demographic trends towards ageing populations in many Western countries, issues of older age, ageing and ageism are now higher on some political and organizational agendas than in previously. One central question of policy interest on different levels of decision-making has been to prolong working and employed life.

This is, however, a complicated questions since ageing and organizations are embedded and intertwined in very many ways, write Hanken researchers Jeff Hearn and Charlotta Niemistö in the recent book Age at Work: Ambiguous Boundaries of Organizations, Organizing and Ageing authored with Wendy Parkin (UK) and Richard Howson (Australia).

While adults of middle years dominate many workplaces and other organizations, children, younger people and older people are all responsible for a huge amount of work, whether paid, unpaid, voluntary or caring. In the book, the authors explore some of the many ways in which age and organizations are intertwined.

It is common to think that organizations develop throughout time and that problems that previous generations faced are resolved by a younger generation. This is, however, not always the case. To give a few examples, while older age often, up to a point, increases rather than decreases men’s organizational status and the valuing of their knowledge, men may also encounter uncertainties around their ageing bodies when exhibiting weakness, dependency or passivity. And while it is more common, at least in many countries for women to combine family and working life today compared to how it was, for example, in the 1950s, the complexity and intensity of  working life has increased for women and men, making it more difficult to combine working life with family life for both, Hearn and Niemistö write. They comment:

 “Age, ageing and generation are fundamental issues for managers and employees in day-to-day work, in work teams, within workplaces, and indeed in business-to-business negotiations, along with the very different and shifting demands in combining work and life at different times of life.”

Hearn and Niemistö remind us that people of different ages and genders, and at different career stages, encounter and cope with working life issues in very different ways. Care responsibilities for immediate family, ageing relatives and friends change over the lifetime, although care remains strongly gendered.

Hearn and Niemistö also write that age and other social categories such as gender and ethnicity affect different industries in different ways. For example, universities typically comprise a more fixed layer of older senior academics and professors, still mainly men, a more mixed layer of adults and older adults, together with a shifting flow of temporary populations of younger people passing through in large numbers. On the other hand, in some workplaces, say, some tech companies, young adults, often predominantly young men, sometimes of more diverse ethnicities, may be the norm and older age can be something of an exception.  

According to the book, many organizations still operate without an explicit orientation to age and ageing. Patterns of age inequality have clear concrete effects; EU reports have suggested age discrimination occurring at higher levels than gender or race discrimination in the EU. Hearn and Niemistö reflect:

“Age, ageing and ageism, or rather double ageism – that is ageism towards both younger aged and older aged employees – need to be taken in board alongside gender equality policy and as part of diversity policy. HR strategy should embrace age and ageing, and oppose ageism, age discrimination and micro- aggressions by age, as a routine part of good policy and practice, not just as an occasional afterthought."