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Tom Wellner (Globe and Mail Update)
Tom Wellner (Globe and Mail Update)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Fighting ageism to unlock seniors’ potential in your business Add to ...

Thomas Wellner is president and CEO of Revera Inc.

In Statistics Canada’s key results from the 2016 census, the biggest news was the dramatic spike in the number of seniors; we now live in a time when seniors, classified as those 65-plus, outnumber children.

That the number of older adults is increasing isn’t a surprise – the first boomers turned 65 in 2011. But what did surprise me was the lack of optimism about this news amongst business leaders.

I believe that Canadian businesses have been handed a transformative opportunity. Seniors, healthier and living longer than ever before, are a growing and remarkably diverse market, as well as a highly experienced talent pool.

Just consider how technology-driven innovation can improve the aging experience for seniors. From wearable technologies designed to track and monitor health indicators to smart homes designed to support active, independent in-place aging, companies with an innovation agenda have an abundance of opportunity to create new products and services for a market that is more complex than we might expect. It is anything but homogeneous, considering the very significant differences between the wants and needs of a 65-year-old versus a 95-year-old.

Today’s older adults also represent, somewhat ironically, a new employee demographic that businesses have yet to value. In my experience working with seniors— and I have a fair bit, given that more than 500 people over age 65 work in the company I lead, and our oldest employee, chief elder officer Hazel McCallion, is 96 — they bring enthusiasm, experience, knowledge, and loyalty to their jobs.

If more seniors in our society represent a new market opportunity and a source of skilled labour, what’s stopping companies from embracing these opportunities? One very real and impactful barrier – ageism.

According to recent research, ageism is Canada’s most tolerated form of social discrimination. It’s at the heart of every assumption we make about seniors as customers and as workers. Tackling ageism means taking a hard look at our own attitudes and organizational cultures, then taking tangible steps to address it.

Employers need to ask whether their policies, practices and workplace are age-friendly. For instance, when an employee gets close to retirement age, do they still have the same opportunities as their younger peers? If not, why not?

Many older workers do not want to fully retire at 65; these are Boomers, who tend to defy expectations. Flexible work arrangements like job sharing can make continued employment of older adults not only possible, but practical and attractive. To support workers who prefer a warmer climate in the winter, for instance, some companies offer “snowbird” programs, which allow people to work in two locations seasonally; they get the environment they want, and the company retains valued, experienced employees.

How age-friendly and accessible is your office design? An office full of beanbag chairs and backless stools is not senior-friendly. How do you help older workers adapt to new technologies? There are organizations that have reverse mentoring programs, pairing younger workers with older ones, to keep everyone up-to-date.

Challenging inherently ageist HR conventions can be as simple as making small decisions that have a big impact. For example, I encourage companies to review benefits packages and remove common restrictions affecting employees 65 and over. I know from experience that the cost is miniscule, but the value is enormous: you send a clear message to your older workers that they are as important as everyone else on your team.

Addressing ageism internally may help spark motivation to address it externally by bringing meaningful new products and services to older customers. So many organizations have the potential to generate new revenue streams simply by thinking about seniors as a diverse target market. Shifting the culture of an organization to accept older Canadians as a viable, and attractive, market segment will drive innovation that targets seniors’ needs and wants.

It is estimated that by 2031, close to one in four Canadians will be 65 and older. The business case against ageism has never been so compelling. Companies who address ageism in their workplace, who innovate to answer the needs of Canada’s seniors and who embrace the opportunity to make changes today will be economic winners. There is much to gain in showing ageism the door.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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