Older women are what business needs

07 July 2017

By 2050, the number of over-60s in the world will have doubled. The World Economic Forum recently called this ‘the financial equivalent of climate change,’ which will haunt future generations if we fail to address it.

One of the major consequences is that we’ll all have to work for longer. That was the impetus behind our Golden Age Index, which assess how well OECD countries are harnessing the power of workers over the age of 55. The latest report reveals a mix of steady progress and lost opportunity; if every OECD country improved its over-55s employment rate to that of Sweden (where 75% of 55 to 64-year-olds are employed), the long-term GDP gain could reach $2trn.

It’s clear from the report that organisations are missing out from a valuable segment of the workforce, and this is particularly true when it comes to older women; there’s a significant gender gap in many countries between the number of male and female over-55s in work. Finland has the best record among the OECD nations, where there is parity between the number of men and women over the age of 55 in employment; in the UK, 63.4% of 50 to 64 year olds in work are women and 75.4% are men. The gender pay gap also tends to increase with age.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, but the end results is that the labour market experience of older women is often characterised by lower pay, more part-time work and higher barriers to entry than men of the same age.

This feels like a lost opportunity. There’s a growing body of evidence that uniquely human skills such as emotional intelligence and adaptability are becoming much more valuable and important in the machine age. We found in a study, for example, that ‘strategic’ leaders who are most effective in bringing about change tend to hold attributes (such as humility of perspective and resilience) that are seen most commonly in the over 55s and in women. The skills that women naturally develop over the course of their lives at work and at home – time and crisis management, people skills and empathy, for example – are what organisations are desperate for. So why on earth would we exclude people with these skills from the workforce, intentionally or unintentionally?

This year’s Golden Age report says that governments are making good progress in removing the obstacles to employment for the older generation, but that the challenges around recruitment and training remain. That means that companies and governments need to work closely together if we are to harness the considerable talents and traits of older workers, and under-employed groups in particular. And that includes thinking carefully at the policies that would encourage older women to return to or stay at work.

Flexible working policies are a must – when we compared this year’s Golden Age Index against our Women in Work Index, we found a positive correlation which suggests that flexible working policies also incentivise women to stay in work for longer – as is training that’s targeted at older workers. But we could go further: Financial incentives could be a big draw to women with a gap in their pension contributions, as could be ‘returnships’ for those who have been away from employment for a while.

We also need to recognise that learning doesn’t stop at 30. It’s no coincidence that Iceland, the country that ranks top of the Golden Age Index, has a comprehensive, state-funded lifelong learning programme in place – and it works. One in three women in Iceland graduate from tertiary education after the age of 30, compared to one in 10 on average in the OECD.

It seems that employers are missing out on an enormously valuable source of skills for the automated age. If an adjustment in your employment policies is all it takes, what are you waiting for?

 

View Carol Stubbings’ profile on LinkedIn

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