Building an Intergenerational Workplace and Avoiding Age Discrimination
30 April 2018
By Krista James
“People don’t want to hire you. Because you are older they think you’re going to get sick and cost them money, or you are too old to learn new technologies. There is a lot of ageism.”1
Older Women’s Dialogue Project
I imagine we have all heard the expression: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
There is no research to support this idiom as a literal statement of the abilities of older people to learn new tasks. Rather, research suggests that ongoing learning is part of healthy positive aging, and helps us to maintain cognitive health. However, people may have different learning styles, and demonstrate different kinds of intelligence. An inclusive workplace will embed adult education knowledge about how people actually learn into workplace training and professional development.
Aging: Myth and Fact
Other myths about older workers that have been busted by research include:
• Are less productive: Research indicates little decline in overall productivity as we age. Where challenges emerge related to aging, older workers tend to compensate with skills and experience. One UK study found that while younger adults may perform repetitive tasks more quickly, older people are often faster at carrying out complex tasks that allow them to draw on their contextual knowledge and years of work experience.
• Are off the job more due to illness: While older workers may be off for more lengthy period of time when they are ill, as they may need more time to recuperate, they generally have fewer short term absences from work. That said, healing depends on overall health and well-being, and everyone is unique.
• Are quick to retire after hiring, so not a good investment: Older workers tend to stay in their positions longer. One study by the US Department of Labor confirms that older workers are more loyal, staying in their jobs for longer periods of time.
• Plan to retire at age 65 or earlier: Based on the 2016 Canadian Census, 13.9% of people over 65 are in the labour market—either working or looking for a job. Based on our own discussions with older adults, a lot of factors impact our ability to retire in our 60s. What if you:
• bought a house at age 55
• got separated at 50
• immigrated to Canada in your 50s and so have limited entitlement to Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan benefits
• got into gambling debt at age 60
• took years off for caring for your spouse with a disability in your 40s and returned to the paid work force in your 50s with limited savings
• have an adult child with a disability?
All these factors and other can impact whether you can, or wish, to retire in your 60s. For some, retirement feels like an inaccessible dream.
Some health conditions are more commonly associated with aging, such as: arthritis; diabetes; osteoporosis; dementia; and hypertension.2 Other health changes can be associated with otherwise health aging:3
Changes in maximum muscular strength and range of joint movement: In general, people lose strength over time from age 20 to 60—as much as 20%. As a result, although older may sustain performance, they may be working harder in order to meet past expectations of productively and strength. There can be a loss of overall strength, range of motion capacity, and flexibility.
Cardiovascular and respiratory systems: Breathing capacity can reduce by 40% between age of 30 and 65.
Regulation of posture and balance: The ability to maintain good posture and balance can decrease as we age, resulting in increased risk of injury.
Sleep regulation: The ability to sustain restorative sleep can be compromised as we age, particularly during menopause, which can impact overall quality of life and work performance. Older shift or night workers may start to find overnight work particularly challenging.
Thermoregulation (body temperature): Our ability to maintain and adjust internal temperatures may decrease, resulting in older workers having difficulty with hot and cold work environments. Older workers doing manual labour may overheat more easily.
Vision: We all know vision changes as we age. Changes affect: depth perception; the ability to see or adjust focus in certain distance ranges; peripheral visual perception; visual acuity; and resistance to glare, and light transmission. Ability to see in compromised lighting conditions may become compromised.
Auditory (hearing): Hearing also changes, and people may find noisy environment and auditory chaos challenge their hearing abilities.
Supporting your Older Workers
The key to supporting your older workers and avoiding allegations of age discrimination is developing a workplace that is age-friendly and dementia-friendly. There is much to be learned from the disability movement about how to build an inclusive and accessible workplace. Advances in ergonomic design can be excellent resources. Below we include a list of resources that can assist you to develop a workplace that honours everyone’s needs.
It is important to recognize that some older workers may not immediately understand their own accommodation needs. Accommodation can be a journey that takes time. It can also be an experiment of trying new things to see if they help. For people living with a new diagnosis of dementia, we encourage you recognize that:
1. It can be very difficult to get a diagnosis, and some workers may struggle in diagnostic limbo and frustration for a long time, wondering what is wrong, and why certain tasks have become challenging.
2. A diagnosis of dementia can be a form of trauma for some people, and they may require time and support to come to terms with the diagnosis. Alzheimer’s societies can be an amazing resource for people living with dementia, families, and employers.
3. There can be tremendous stigma attached to dementia, resulting in reluctance to seek a diagnosis, discrimination, and additional related health issues, such as depression.
The resources below provide practical strategies for enhancing inclusion for older adults. An overwhelming theme of many of them is that younger workers and older workers alike value what is called work-life balance and appreciate work flexibility options. Many of the resources also highlight that older workers value opportunities to mentor. A strong inter-generational workplace will see older and younger workers teaching each other, and long-term experience being valued through mentorship.
We run afoul with human rights principles when we make generalizations based on age that imply differential entitlement or better skills. We need to focus on individual value and skills, as well as legitimate business needs, in order to avoid discrimination.
Government of Canada, Age-friendly workplaces: promoting older worker participation (2016)
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Policy Brief: Age-Friendly Employment: Policies and Practices (2011)
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and others, Designing the Age Friendly Workplace
The Centre on Aging and Work at Boston College, many resources and publications
Dementia Friendly Workplace
 Canadian Centre for Elder Law, Your Words are Worth Something: Identifying Barriers to the Well Being of Older Women (Vancouver: CCEL), 2013, at 33, online: https://www.bcli.org/project/older-womens-dialogue-project.
 Beth Loy, Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees who are Aging, 2013, online: thttps://askjan.org/media/aging.html.