Why are we increasingly excluding a growing candidate audience segment with our inflexibility?

I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t get two blogs out of the World Cup with England still actively participating. It’s hard to work out who has the widest smile, Gareth Southgate (will he come home a simple Mr?) or the Lightning Seeds’ accountant?

However, football’s apparently inevitable domestic return has impacted on a number of other sports. Attendances at Wimbledon have been down at key times this championship and cricket in particular has had to take a back seat. Heavily involved as I am with a major south London club, we have had to flexibly re-schedule any number of matches which clashed with the football.

I’m fascinated too about the flexible working arrangements that thousands of England fans must have with their employers. With the side going much deeper into the competition than anyone dared hope, there is growing interest in grabbing a plane out to Moscow to watch the semi final, along with the giddy prospect of a potential final on Sunday. What times we’re living in.

However, it would be naïve to assume that all employers demonstrate such Pickford-like agility and flexibility.

Employment flexibility is emerging as perhaps the core factor influencing retention and engagement, regardless of employee demographics. It was certainly the central point of Employment Minister’s Alok Sharma’s speech at the very recent RecFest18 – ‘All generations want flexibility. We need to show innovation in how we engage people in more flexible ways of working’.

It can be all too easy to assume flexibility is only of interest or relevance to younger workers and/or those experiencing maternity or paternity. There is, too, a clear relationship between my last blog which touched on ageism and how we might better engage with older workers within the workplace.

But it is becoming abundantly clear that mature workers are a demographic which senses increasing prejudice and is increasingly less inclined to put up with it.

In San Francisco, the Communication Workers of America union has recently expanded the scope of its class action suit to include major employers, such as Amazon, T-Mobile, Capital One and Enterprise Rent a Car, who are accused of deliberately targeting their Facebook ads to exclude older workers.

Staying in California, Silicon Valley’s 150 biggest tech firms have faced more accusations of age related bias over the past ten years than issues relating to race or gender.

And if growing numbers of an expanding demographic are feeling more and more embittered towards employers, then this feels like a significant missed opportunity. For once again, the great majority of the labour market statistics point towards this being a candidate-driven market.

According to REC’s Report on Jobs, there was both sharply declining candidate availability and an increase – for the 23rd month in a row – of permanent staff placements.

Perhaps more telling were the results from the Times CEO Summit earlier this month, which asked the country’s business leaders what was keeping them up at night. Digital disruption certainly featured, and worries over growth in a post-Brexit world was the second most popular answer.

However, the option ‘How to improve my team and hire the right people’ was the most populous choice.

And the REC CEO, Neil Carberry, sums things up succinctly – ‘Across the majority of sectors, both temporary and permanent opportunities are growing, and a lack of candidates means it is no surprise to see starting pay also rising’.

Which makes the industry’s apparent inability to engage successfully with a major and growing candidate audience segment baffling. Because by 2020, one in three workers in the UK will be over the age of 50.

And the key to such engagement appears consistently across a variety of channels and research sources.

The Centre for Better Ageing produced a major report earlier this year which called on both government and employers to better support older workers in order that they are able to both remain in and return to the workplace. First in the list of recommendations – access to flexible working hours and workplace adaptations.

A key recent study from the US Society for Human Resource Management comes to a similar conclusion. Specifically, it breaks down the apparent inflexibility experienced by many older workers into three categories – workplace flexibility or the capacity to work from home or remotely; workday flexibility or the ability to job share or work reduced hours; and career flexibility or reducing and changing job responsibilities.

Interestingly, the majority of research pieces and thinking around the enhanced engagement of older workers appears to originate in the US. Is thinking around such experiences and potential solutions more advanced there than in the UK and Europe?

The CIPD would appear to back this up. Earlier this year, its Head of Public Policy, Ben Willmott, spoke at a government inquiry – ‘Another solution, the uptake of flexible working, has broadly plateaued over the last 15 years. Overall, employees’ ability to access flexi-time, job shares and home working has not really increased. We need to unlock the potential of flexible working and make it more inclusive.’

According to a survey of 2,000 UK employees this year by Paymentsense, just 46% have access to flexible working arrangements – leaving more than half of all UK workers without recourse to flexible terms of employment.

And why this need for flexibility? Workers in the 50s and 60s are more likely than ever before to have living parents who will need care and attention.

Successfully engaging with older workers makes sense on so many levels, certainly the challenges of the current labour market. Potentially, more relevant is the fact that as we live longer and longer, this means that customers are often older and older. Having a workforce that reflects this demographic feels as important from a diversity, customer alignment and empathy perspective as gender, sexuality and ethnicity considerations.

But as 75% of UK employees expect to work past the state pension age, at the same time, two thirds of all (US) workers have experienced ageism within the workplace.

There’s a cruel irony that just as physical flexibility starts to desert us, it is greater employment flexibility we seek in from our employer.

There’s also a similar irony that the success of the England football team, amongst the youngest ever to compete in a World Cup and led by one of our youngest ever managers, will only potentially fuel ageism rather than helping it.

I get quietly frustrated at the amount of generational generalisms our industry can create. And flexible working is perhaps right up there. Just as it’s important for Millennials, it is equally important for those with much more experience of the workplace.

The different generations have more in common than we perhaps realise in terms of what we want from work. The same focus, energy and commitment should be applied to providing a flexible employment situation to those nearing the end of their careers as those at the beginning of their working lives.

At the same time, older workers, particularly in the UK, have perhaps been more accepting of their lot within the workplace, apprehensive about being seen to complain and ask for greater flexibility. The more litigious US is clearly experiencing more and more legal activity pointing out the shortcomings of many organisations as regards ageism. It will be interesting to see if such activity increasingly crosses the Atlantic.

More positively, if you’re looking for an example of how to get things right from a flexibility perspective, take a look at Aldi’s initiative around a possible World Cup final on Sunday. If England make it to the final, all Aldi shops will close so that their people are able to watch the game. Football’s coming home, much like Aldi’s employees. Good for them.