Demonising the young sets us on the road to nowhere

When the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) received the top-line results from some research we commissioned in advance of our conference in February, we were a little disappointed. At first glance it suggested that – please try to control your shock – age discrimination mainly affected older people.

Some 12% of those questioned said they had been made to feel too old while only 4% had been made to feel self-conscious about being too young. If this is the case, why worry at all about young people? But a closer look revealed something very different. In fact, one in five adults under 20 has been put off applying for a job because of their age – more than any other age group.

But who cares about young workers? Do young people care – are they ‘bovvered’?

Our research shows that they really do care. Young people are just as likely to feel self-conscious about their age as older people. At the same time, old people feel threatened and offended by young people.

And this is why employers should care. Because, as we know, it is going to get harder to recruit and retain young people, and differences or pressures between the generations are likely to get worse, not better, with the changing demographic profile in this country. Attracting, managing and motivating young people at work, therefore, needs urgent attention.

Some might say that under-20s really are a bit young for work, but we still found 13% of 20- to 29-year-olds were put off applying for a job because they felt too young – twice the proportion of those aged 40. Is it that the majority of employers are looking for more experience in a particular area, and don’t want that 13% to respond to their advertisements? Or is it that employers are failing to communicate effectively with young people?

We invited some students and young entrepreneurs to share their experiences of the workplace. The overwhelming impression was that the workplace was not designed for them, that they will have to compromise who they are to be the person an employer wants. And those who can’t or won’t compromise? Well, the only option they could find was to go it alone and set up their own business.

Is this really what employers want? There is a long established truth on the diversity ‘agenda’ that people can only really perform when they can be themselves. But when being ‘yourself’ leads to headlines about ‘graduate divas’, and accusations that you are lacking the work ethic, you can see why some young people are struggling to commit to the long haul.

Better performance management, as ever, is the key to so much of this. Employers that are developing SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time) performance management techniques, those that are able understand the motivation of individuals and that can adapt their measures to value ability to do the job above ability to fit in, will be far more likely to meet the needs of all their workers, not just the younger ones.

The new generation coming into the workplace is a very different one from those who came before. They value self-expression, they are IT literate, they think in a different way, and they are not satisfied with what is on offer to them. They are the ‘tick this box to opt out’ generation, and if we are not careful, they will opt out as employees as well.

There has been much debate about NEETs (not currently in education or employment or training), anti-yob ‘mosquito’ devices, rising youth crime, and increasing social polarisation, and we have all been effective at finding fault with young people, but not so strong when it comes to finding solutions.

The workplace is the last melting pot – it is one of the only places people across cultural, social and religious divides still meet, and where we see generations interacting as nowhere else. If employers can reach out to this new generation, and develop their skills and confidence, they will have workers who are committed to them for the long term. The price of failure is almost too scarily huge to contemplate.

Rachel Krys, director, Employers Forum on Age. She is also director of the Employers Forum on Belief.

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