Will the hybrid model really work for older employees?

On the face of it, a more flexible future of work spells good news for older workers. But it all depends on which business sector you work in – and age discrimination is still rife

More than two years on from the start of the global pandemic, many questions remain around the flexible world of work that is now emerging. One of those questions relates to the demographic makeup of the workforce – will the hybrid working model be good news for older workers?

In theory at least, hybrid working is set to offer millions of people more choice and flexibility in where and how they work in the future. This gives older employees – who still occupy a significant swathe of the global workforce – a reason to be cheerful.

In combining some attendance in the office with work at home and in other local places such as coworking or satellite venues, hybrid makes it easier for people to administer care to themselves and others, or to manage non-work commitments such as volunteering or hobbies, while holding down a job. Many flexible workers, including myself, have learnt a new musical instrument since March 2020.

Sitting on a spectrum

So, for an older person, what’s not to like about hybrid? Released from long commutes and regular attendance in noisy, high-density open-plan offices, it seemingly represents a new form of freedom. That depends, however, on what industry sector employs you. Hybrid working sits on a spectrum. Some companies are ‘hyper hybrid’ while others are ‘hardly hybrid’. Most firms sit somewhere in the middle.

‘Banks and law firms are keen to get back to the over-the-shoulder mentoring of junior staff by senior partners…’

WORKTECH Academy’s own research suggests that if you work in finance or law, it’s quite possible you have already been mandated to return to the office full-time. These employers are ‘resolute returners’ worried about the impact of remote work on culture, collaboration and training. They are keen to get back to the over-the-shoulder mentoring of junior staff by senior partners. The big US banks have led the charge on this approach with Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon on the record as calling remote work an ‘aberration’ that needs to be corrected as soon as possible.

But if you work in technology or life sciences, it’s more likely that you’ve been given freedom to work in any way you choose. These employers are ‘choice champions’ who are learning to trust their people to make the right decisions on how best to get work done. Big tech firms have led the charge in this area – Twitter, Slack and Salesforce have all told their employees they are not required to go to the office every day. Salesforce boss Brent Hyder has said: ‘An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our towers – the 9-to-5 workday is dead.’

All mixed up

The trouble is that there are probably many more older people still employed in banking, insurance and law firms than in social media and software. Recent studies have shown a demographic divide between younger workers, who generally want to get back to the office to socialise in teams and build a professional network, and older workers who already have that network and who crave more flexibility.

We could soon be in a situation in which the age cohort most eager for greater working autonomy are denied that choice by the ‘resolute returners’, while those millennial and Gen Z employees most anxious for friendly face-to-face encounters in the workplace turn up at the ‘work-anywhere’ organisation only to find nobody is there or those in attendance are busy all day on Zoom.

In its most basic scientific meaning, hybridity is about different elements being mixed together. As demographic preferences reveal themselves in the hybrid workplace, there’s a danger that things could get very mixed up indeed.

The Great Clear-Out

The picture gets even more complicated when you factor in ‘The Great Resignation’. A recent article in the Financial Times suggested that this should be renamed ‘The Great Clear-Out’ given the exodus of baby boomers during the pandemic. Not all of this exodus was voluntary: according to the US Shwartz Centre for Economic Policy Analysis, 400,000 of an estimated one million Americans aged 55 to 74 who left the job market after March 2020 were still unemployed a year later.

‘Negative stereotypes about ageing are more persistent than those related to race and gender…’

What is going on? Is it age discrimination, given that many organisations report that they are struggling to fill vacancies? The FT thinks so: it quotes two Harvard psychologists who suggest that negative stereotypes about ageing are actually more persistent than those related to race and gender. America has a particularly poor record in this area. One in five workers in America is aged 55 and over, but as many as two-thirds of workers say they have seen or experienced age discrimination in the US workplace.

A message of sorts arises from all of this: older workers might well benefit from hybrid working – provided they can escape their involuntary ejection from the workforce and provided they are working in those industry sectors that favour flexibility over a mandated full-time return to the office. The path to hybrid harmony won’t necessarily be plain sailing for the ageing workforce.

Jeremy Myerson is the co-founder and director of WORKTECH Academy, Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.
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