Ageism is usually associated with prejudice against older people, but according to the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) younger people feel more discriminated against at work than the over-forties. Why is this? The answer is that they believe they are not taken seriously, their views are not heard and they are undervalued. And the EFA says national statistics support this view. Some 25% of school leavers have faced prejudice at work, compared to 18% of people over 60.
In spite of this, 70% of younger people say that a career path is important the highest percentage of any age group. Given that local authorities have an ageing workforce, looking at ways to engage this section of the workforce should be a priority for senior managers.
But this is a complex issue. For instance, should employers be treating staff differently, according to their age? If they do, they could well find themselves being ageist.
“Even up to a year ago I would have said that organisations should treat workers according to their ability, not their age,” says Rachel Krys, managing director of the EFA. “But you have to take life stages into account, even though these are not rigidly defined by age. A pre-children lifestyle can last till your mid-twenties, or till your forties but you will have a different motivation at that point in your life.”
Flexibility is the key here, and although many local authorities have staff working on job shares or putting in part-time hours, they may need to look again at how flexible work options can attract and retain younger staff. And they should not assume that perks like career breaks will appeal only to their younger workers.
“All employers need to revisit flexible working, but they should still avoid stereotyping staff,” says Ms Krys. “It may well be the 50-somethings who want to go off backpacking.”
Many people under 30 are eager for promotion, but impatient with the routine aspects of work. “They feel hard done by, and they also feel bored,” says Ms Krys. Local councils in particular are not seen as very exciting places to work.
A varied career
The issue here is that younger people may be stereotyping councils, rather than the other way around. The sector may have an image problem, but it clearly has a lot to offer in terms of a varied career and the chance to take on a socially useful role.
One council addressing this issue directly is Kent CC . Of its workforce, 50% are over 35, while only 6.5% are under 25. Schemes brought in to boost the recruitment of younger staff include a gap-year programme, a recruitment DVD made by the students at a local secondary school, a microsite aimed at the under-25s and a support group called ‘Greenhouse’, which sets out to help younger staff fulfil their potential.
Giving younger people a boost at work need not be expensive, stresses the EFA. “Mentoring and coaching are both very important ways of helping younger staff,” says Ms Krys. “It’s good to have a mentor who is relatively close in age, maybe five years older, who has been through similar experiences recently.”
Another council taking youth employment seriously is Hertfordshire CC . Alan Warner, director of people and property, says age diversity is particularly important to councils because they need to reflect the community.
“We need a good mix of ages, and we need the challenges and fresh ideas that younger people bring to the workplace,” he says. “Hertfordshire has its own anti-ageism strategy, with the strapline ‘Making our mark takes (all) ages’.”
He adds: “We are asking young people what do you need? How can we keep you interested? We do need to create a workplace they want to be part of. Work is an important place for social networking, so we help younger staff develop links with other people of the same age in the organisation. Who wants to work in an office where everyone is the same age as your dad?”
A balanced approach is the answer, adds Mr Warner. “The most successful employers will be those that go with the grain of the workforce, rather than trying to impose rigid policies on different groups.”
Revisit your flexible working policy to see if it is sufficiently adaptable to the needs of different groups
Listen to younger staff and find out what motivates and interests them
Be prepared to give more responsibility to younger workers, rather than expecting them to fit into a rigid hierarchy
Be complacent because you already have a flexible working policy in place
Assume that younger staff must just learn to fit in with the local authority, and that the organisation does not need to change
Make special provision for younger staff at the expense of older staff