Helen Hirsh Spence
Founder and CEO of Top Sixty Over Sixty
Canada is getting older. Ageism, unlike other “isms,” is normalized and socially accepted. Age bias interferes with recruiting, hiring, and retaining older workers.
When retired teacher and author, Becky Livingston, decided to enroll in Top Sixty Over Sixty’s Uncovering Purpose course, she didn’t know what to expect. She did know that she’d enjoyed a fulfilling career and didn’t have to work for financial reasons. Yet despite a life filled with volunteer activities, grandchildren, and an aging mother in England, she felt something was missing. She needed a better reason to get up in the morning and wanted to take advantage of her accrued knowledge and skills to continue contributing.
Livingston is among millions of older adults (over age 55) with multiple skills, life experience, expertise, good health, and a keen desire to work. However, she also understood how challenging it would be to re-enter the working world as a woman of a certain age.
Reasons for labour shortage
One of the main causes of Canada’s persistent labour shortage is demographics. “From 2016–2021, the number of Canadians at retirement age rose by 18.3 per cent to seven million” (Statistics Canada). This is the second-largest increase in 75 years. This demographic shift, along with falling birth rates, was anticipated. The truth is Canada’s older adults will continue to outnumber those between the ages of 15 to 24, with the 85 and older cohort expected to triple by 2046.
From 2016–2021, the number of Canadians at retirement age rose by 18.3 per cent to seven million” (Statistics Canada).
The other main reason for today’s employment shortage is ageism, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination based on age. Ageism is the only bias that not only continues to be socially acceptable and normalized but is also absent from most diversity initiatives. In fact, ageism is so rampant that the World Health Organization released a Global Report on Ageism in 2021 that recognizes ageism as an epidemic; one out of two persons globally is ageist against older adults. Ageism is such a health menace that addressing it would reduce health costs and benefit Canada economically.
A new paradigm
Today’s older adult is better educated, more active, technologically savvier, and has a longer lifespan than any other in history. Full retirement is becoming a notion of the past. Today’s typical older adult wants to retire gradually and gracefully, cutting back on hours and even authority. They want to continue to learn, engage with others, contribute to their communities, and still have time to pursue other activities and interests.
With inflation, faltering pension plans, and longer lives, many older adults need to work. It’s a luxury of the past to enjoy full pensions in an economy that depends increasingly on gig workers. The new 60-year work-life, predicted in the New Map of Life, an initiative of the Stanford Center on Longevity, reinforces the need for a shift in thinking. Yet, most employers continue to think about work within a 20th-century paradigm.
Benefits of age diversity
The research is conclusive when it comes to the many positive attributes that older adults bring to the workforce. Older employees bring life experience, an interest in sharing their expertise, and a stronger desire to give back and be of service. They have greater social acumen and emotional regulation. They are dependable and committed. A study from Met Life found that employees over age 50 use 45 per cent fewer sick days than those aged 25–35.
When complemented by younger employees, age diversity creates more productive, creative, and sustainable results. When measured at the team level, institutional knowledge transfer, mentoring, talent development, and reduced turnover lead to increased productivity and an improved bottom line (AARP). Dispelling the many negative myths about older employees is essential to increasing GDP in the immediate and distant future.
Contrary to popular belief, older adults between the ages of 55 to 64 enjoy the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity and make for the most successful entrepreneurs (the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, US). Futurpreneur is a wonderful example of a Canadian initiative available exclusively to those under the age of 39. Unfortunately, there’s no such equivalent for older adults, nor are there any incentives for older adults to engage in entrepreneurial activity.
Livingston entered a new and fulfilling world of employment and entrepreneurship after training to qualify as a life coach. She now uses her vast experience to work with others who are transitioning into their next stages of life. According to Dr. Becca Levy, author of Breaking the Age Code, with ‘purpose’ and positive thinking, Livingston will have a longer and healthier lifespan by 7.5 years.
The growing demographic of older adults in the 21st century represents a never-before resource of creativity, ingenuity, experience, and expertise. For Canada’s future prosperity, dismantling ageism and reframing the narrative of aging is imperative. Like climate change, the tipping point is upon us.