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Reframing aging: Changing the way we think about and support older workers and entrepreneurs


By Pat Spadafora and Lia Tsotsos

Have you ever looked at an older person and thought, “You’re too old to still be working?” or “You are taking the place of a younger person.” Have you ever personally experienced ageism in the workplace? As Canada’s population begins to skew older, with the number of Canadians 65+ now outnumbering the number of children under the age of 14 (Statistics Canada, 2015), questions surrounding the role, continued value and issues faced by older workers are becoming increasingly common.

While we are generally living longer, societal attitudes and beliefs have not kept pace with an older population that is generally healthy, with few comorbidities until more advanced years. The baby boom cohort, in particular, has expectations about continuing to lead active lives well into older age.  In addition, we are experiencing a number of societal changes in Canada that have a direct impact on older adults in the workforce. The abolition of mandatory retirement, the rise of the ‘gig’ economy, and changes in the levels of housing and income security that exist in many parts of the country all significantly impact an older adult’s desire and/or need to continue working. Older adults can take on unique part-time opportunities, remain at their long-term workplaces or become entrepreneurs. This may be by choice or necessity, depending on their own personal financial and/or health situations. These societal changes are neither positive nor negative, but rather reflect a shift in the reality of what work for an older adult means.

Despite the wide range of options that may be available to them, ageism may undermine employment or entrepreneurial opportunities for older workers. Our own research (Revera Report on Ageism: Independence and Choice As We Age, 2016) has found that ageism is considered the most socially accepted form of prejudice in contemporary society and is so deeply embedded in our culture that it often is unintentional and can go unrecognized. In fact, ageism was a dominant theme at the recent International Federation on Ageing’s global conference that convened in Toronto (August 2018) as leaders from across the world grappled with how to better support older workers and abolish outdated attitudes toward aging. For example, in the workplace, there may be subtle pressures to retire to make way for a younger person, or an unspoken belief that an older person won’t understand newer technologies or will be resistant to new ways of doing business.

In society as a whole, ageism manifests itself in a variety of ways. There are the more obvious phrases that are implicitly ageist, such as saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or “I’m having a senior moment.” Stereotypes of older adults in the media often reinforce ageist beliefs. An internet search for images of aging revealed an old print ad for hair colouring that had as its title ‘Gray Hair Cost Her Her Job” and went on to say “She was willing and capable but gray hair made her look old and slow. A younger woman would work more snappily was the verdict.” The cumulative impact of these advertisements and colloquial phrases is to reinforce negative and incorrect stereotypes about older adults as individuals and as workers.

Check out Pat and Lia’s free webinar, “Senior Entrepreneurs Matter: Who Are They, What They Need, and How You Can Help,” on Sept. 18, based on the results of a CERIC-funded research study. Learn more and register here.

Ageism is also evident in policies or procedures that restrict access to support or resources based on age. This was widely reported in a recent study completed by the Centre for Elder Research (and funded by CERIC), where 180 entrepreneurs over the age of 50 shared their insights and experiences about being older entrepreneurs. It was commonly reported that there were services or funding mechanisms that they would have liked to access, but they were only available to young entrepreneurs. Nearly 40% of all respondents faced gaps in the support they needed to launch or develop their businesses. Entrepreneurs of all ages need many of the same things, such as mentors and access to capital; why create age-based barriers where they don’t need to exist?

Why should employers and other service providers care about older workers or challenge their own assumptions and stereotypes about aging? Quite simply, it makes good business sense. As our own CERIC-funded research found, many senior entrepreneurs commented on their experience, their customer-service skills and their networks, all strengths that they bring to the workplace. However, prevailing beliefs die hard. As previously stated, ageism is so deeply ingrained in our society that we are often unaware of our own biases.

In order to address ageism in any meaningful way, we must first be aware of our own attitudes. It is our belief that we must promote the skills and experience of older individuals and older entrepreneurs to all members of society, and strive to change the negative perceptions of aging through education and awareness. There are promising practices globally. For example, Lucia Franca, a researcher at Salgado de Oliveira University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has developed a 28-point scale to measure ageism in an organizational context. The scale has been tested in Brazil and is not yet available for public use. Moving forward, we hope to test and adapt Franca’s scale in Canadian workplaces. We also need to explore more opportunities for intergenerational programming and mentoring, and to design services that do not restrict access to resources based on age.

Older workers and older entrepreneurs have a tremendous amount to offer; their social and economic contributions have not always been recognized or valued. Respondents in the Centre for Elder Research study cite their accumulated work experience, their knowledge of customer needs, and their perseverance and determination as the factors that most contributed to their success. We need to leverage and harness this accrued wisdom, whether it be in the workforce or in the entrepreneurship space, to address the great challenges and opportunities currently faced by our society.

In 2003, Pat Spadafora conceived of, and established, the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research as Canada’s first college-based applied research facility in the field of aging. In 2017, Spadafora left Sheridan to launch Kaleidoscope Consulting, a company dedicated to changing the way we view aging.

Lia Tsotsos is the Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, an interdisciplinary applied research facility based out of Sheridan College in Oakville, ON. Her background is in neuroscience and kinesiology, and her research interests include health promotion, accessible design, scientific literacy and interdisciplinary work.

Lindsay Purchase

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