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25 FEBRUARY 2021
Older workers’ employability is an HRD responsibility
by Silvia Dello Russo
While people are working longer and longer, there is a perception that older workers are less able to move between jobs than younger cohorts, and HR needs to address that.

Past research and naive observations offer initial evidence of a negative association between age and perceived employability. As a generalisation, older workers see themselves as less employable. Yet, examining only this association is not really telling for organisational practice. To give meaningful practical guidance, as some authors pointed out (Froehlich et al., 2015), we also need to understand buffering conditions.

Moreover, there is an underlying assumption when it comes to employability: since employability is an individual’s resource, it looks like each person is exclusively and solely responsible for it. Such an assumption overlooks the role of the context in which every individual is necessarily embedded (Forrier et al., 2018).

With our investigation we contributed to a much-needed contextualised understanding of older workers’ employability. In particular, we focused our attention on two types of context: one closer to the individual, work-related; the other, broader, involving the labour market of one’s country of residence.

Both aspects of the context are highly relevant for employability as they respectively offer: a set of experiences and opportunities, and the roadmap in which one’s employment possibilities reside.

When considering experiences and opportunities provided by organisations, we investigated them in the shape of human resource developmental practices (HRDPs). These are a set of practices, programmes, and activities carried out by organisations which are designed to promote the development of employees. They represent organisational investments into employees’ career development, which may unfold within or outside the organisation.

When considering each labour market, we took into account the general unemployment rate. High unemployment rate is seen as an indicator of a context deprived of employment opportunities, while low unemployment rate is typically seen as an indicator of a flourishing context where opportunities abound.

KEY FINDINGS

There are four main results stemming from our research.

1. Older workers do experience a disadvantage with respect to employability

Older employees tend to report lower employability. This, conceptually, can be explained in two ways.

On the one hand, older workers are aware of ageist bias in workplaces, related to deeply rooted norms and expectations concerning the ‘appropriate’ ages for holding certain positions, or for changing jobs, etc. As a result, older workers anticipate having fewer opportunities in the external labour market and they factor this anticipation in their evaluation of employability.

On the other hand, it is not only the norms held by others that shape older workers’ employability perceptions. They may very likely come to share similar beliefs, losing some confidence in their ability to present themselves as strong candidates in the labour market.

This is a process known as meta-stereotypes: beliefs that individuals have concerning the way they (and their group) are perceived by others. Older workers expect decision-makers in organisations to hold stereotypes about them more negative than they really are.

The finding that age and employability negatively co-vary is small but highly significant. For every additional year of age, an individual’s perceived employability decreases 6% on a scale from 1 to 5. Over 10 years, this would lead to a severely hampered perception of employability if no preventive measure is undertaken.

2. HRD practices can help

The total number of HRDPs experienced by individuals over the course of their careers buffers the negative relationship between age and external employability.

In other words, preventive investments made by organisations in individuals’ human capital and beyond, play a critical protective role.

The specific practices we investigated as part of HRDPs were: performance appraisal, career counselling, assessment centre, mentoring and/or networking, peer and/or subordinate appraisal.

Such programmes nurture individuals’ employability enabling more accurate
self-assessment, boosting self-confidence and equipping workers with knowledge and strategies for how to adapt to and influence their changing work environments.

All of these meta-skills, beyond more specific and technical ones, prove crucial when people look for (re-)employment. This is even more important for older workers in that the larger and more accurate basis of information they have about themselves will serve to counteract ageist bias and negative meta-stereotypes.

HRD practices, we could say, act as a protective shield. Most importantly, this shield is built up over time and over the entire course of a career.

Overall, we found that the effect of having experienced three to four developmental practices out of the five we examined considerably abates the negative association between age and employability. In this scenario, the decrease in employability for every additional year of age reduces to 3.6%.

Despite expectations, we observed no significant association between age and
the number of practices experienced over the working life. Although being in the workplace for longer may mean that older workers are not necessarily the target of further HR investment.

This happens, for example, when older workers, due to their age, tend to be less frequently involved in organisational activities. It may also happen earlier on in one’s career due to elitist approaches to talent management, resulting in a smaller proportion of the workforce being given developmental opportunities.

3. Unemployment rate matters, but not more for older workers

The unemployment rate of each country was examined as a potential worsening factor. In countries with a higher unemployment rate individuals on average reported lower perceived external employability. However, this was not more accentuated for older workers.

This may be influenced by the fact that unemployment can be very diversely distributed and involving different segments of the population (e.g., younger or older people, different genders) in different countries.

In all cases, it is also understandable that people are mostly sensitive to the general ‘trend’ of unemployment than they are aware of its specific rate when it comes to things like age.

4. Employability has more similarities than differences across different countries

Although older workers’ employability disadvantage does not vary significantly by country. The positive and protective effect of HRDPs likewise seems stable across countries and offer some universality in finding a solution to the employment of older workers.

From research to reality

Our research suggests a few takeaway messages.

Firstly, overt age discrimination is not the only problem HR professionals need to worry about.

A subtle issue is the tendency for older workers to perceive themselves as less employable, lose confidence in their abilities and possibilities in the labour market and potentially withdraw from the workforce.

This is what we found in a large sample of professionals and managers, basically knowledge workers. We believe it may be even more pronounced among skilled workers, whose abilities and skills may be more subject
to obsolescence.

Secondly, this paradox should not go unnoticed. People are increasingly required or expected to work longer, but at the same time they face a difficult context for work and account for it when evaluating what possibilities they have in the external market.

Ageist bias may come to influence them so much that they form meta-stereotypes which are often even more negative than the stereotypes in the first place.

HR professionals bear an important responsibility in countering these phenomena. By making sure that employees of all ages are involved in developmental activities – and consistently so along their work-life span – HR will support workers in equipping themselves with abilities, competencies and meta-competencies that will be crucial for lifelong employability.

Developmental practices represent a significant financial investment for organisations and may be seen as risky if the receiving employees are not retained. Nonetheless, this seems a necessary risk, and one that must be incurred out of social responsibility.

Offering appraisals, including peer and subordinate appraisals, career counselling, assessment centres, mentoring and/or networking should be done in an inclusive rather than elitist way. People benefit enormously from these practices not only for their concurrent job performance, but also for longer-term employability.

Policy makers could also consider partnering up with organisations for offering developmental activities to employees, so as to share the responsibility for what was once called lifelong learning – and today lifelong employability.

Silvia Dello Russo is associate professor of HRM at TBS Business School.
Useful resources:

HR Magazine
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