As furlough comes to an end, recruitment procedures are not fit for purpose for older workers

Johnny Runge (Senior Social Researcher, NIESR) & Rose Lasko-Skinner (Demos)

“I just feel that some people are of the opinion that you’re not fired up, you’re not ambitious. I think it’s hard for someone to understand that… I’m nearly 60, but I’m still ambitious.” – Interview participant, woman, 59, working in retail, Yorkshire and the Humber.

Post Date
28 September, 2021
Reading Time
5 min read

Research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and Demos shows that recruitment procedures fail older workers. This is particularly worrying as people aged 50 and above have been some of the hardest hit by the labour market shock linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. Compared to their younger colleagues, older workers have remained stuck on furlough during the reopening since April 2021, and 3 in 10 of them think there is a 50 per cent chance or higher that they will lose their job when the scheme ends. With the end of furlough in sight and a record number of job vacancies, it is critical that the recruitment system is equipped to get people of all ages into new employment opportunities.

Conversations last year with 55 older workers, conducted jointly by NIESR and Demos, however found a recruitment system that is unfit for purpose for older workers. Experiences of ageism are unfortunately widespread, diminishing older people’s job prospects, and often affecting their confidence, well-being and self-esteem. The research found that as many as 1 in 3 older workers (50-69 year-olds) believe that their age disadvantages them when applying for jobs.

Some research participants had experienced blatant and visible age discrimination, for instance being told during job interviews that the employer was looking for someone younger. More commonly, research participants said discrimination operated covertly and out of direct sight of job applicants. It was often difficult for participants definitively to prove age discrimination, even if they were confident that it existed and that it had disadvantaged them in past job applications. The existence of age discrimination was therefore often framed by older workers as a strong suspicion, based on seeing their success rate decline with age; on observing certain behaviours by employers during the recruitment process; and on seeing clear evidence during recruitment and promotion rounds at their own workplace.

The fear of age discrimination and the loss of confidence often affected how older people approached the recruitment process, and it shaped key decisions about their careers. Perhaps one of the most alarming findings of our research was hearing how older jobseekers felt they had to take age bias and discrimination into consideration on every step of the way to potentially securing a job. Most drastically, it led some to abandon the recruitment process altogether, and to stay in their current jobs even when they were not necessarily satisfied in their role – it is “better the devil you know”, as one research participant put it. In fact, in the nationally representative survey that we conducted with around 1,500 people, a quarter of people in their 50s and 60s said they had wanted to move jobs but felt unable to do so because of their age.

Some older applicants become increasingly selective over time, to avoid opportunities that they deemed as unrealistic. They reported carefully choosing which jobs and organisations they applied for by screening adverts for various indicators of employers’ implicit age preferences, including language such as ‘dynamic’, ‘energetic’, ‘go-getting’, ‘working at a fast pace’ and ‘working long hours’. They additionally looked for any language that indicated the job was meant for a younger person, such as ‘students’, ‘graduates’, ‘recent graduates’, ‘entry roles’ and ‘apprenticeships’. Workplaces promoted or described as ‘fun’ and ‘lively’ were also seen as indicating a preference for younger applicants. While most older jobseekers questioned the validity of these stereotypes, the employers’ choice of language indicated to them that their age might be a stumbling block for their application.

According to our survey, the vast majority (95%) of older jobseekers always disclosed their age on their CV. This is despite the fact that older people are often advised by recruiters to exclude their age or date of birth to avoid potential age discrimination. Some said they wanted to be upfront and honest about their profile and older age, precisely because it gave those employers who preferred younger candidates a chance to filter them out during the application stage. By being clear about their older age, jobseekers said they avoided wasting time on interviews for which they felt they were destined to be rejected, or to which they felt they were only invited to ‘make up the numbers’ and to ensure diversity. These strategies allowed them to avoid painful experiences of age bias during interviews.

By avoiding opportunities, however, the sobering fact is that the expectation and fear of age discrimination led older workers to adopt strategies that ultimately made them less likely to secure jobs, creating a vicious circle for these workers. A labour market that incentivises applicants to discriminate against themselves is not fit for purpose and needs urgent reform, so that both employers and employees can benefit from an experienced and diverse workforce.

On 30 September 2021, you can join us for a free online event exploring how to improve the recruitment of older workers, hosted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the Centre for Ageing Better. You can read more in our previous blog here and sign up here.