The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic volatility that followed reshaped the workplace for employers and employees. According to Moody’s, nearly 22 million U.S. jobs have been lost since the beginning of the pandemic, disproportionately affecting older Americans, as well as people of color and women. Compared to younger workers, a higher percentage of older workers have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
These unanticipated exits (including “unplanned retirements” or resignations) of older workers has threatened not only income but also access to health insurance—particularly if they are not yet eligible for Medicare (see also Fry, 2021). At some workplaces, older workers may have faced substantial stigma associated with their reluctance to return to work and face possible exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
Inequities at Work: Putting Older Workers at a Disadvantage
The pandemic opened new conversations about equity in the workplace. Older workers can encounter bias and discrimination as they interact with individuals, organizational systems and the job structure. Select findings from the Boston Workplace Equity Study illustrate how these three dimensions of equity/inequity can either respond to the needs of older workers or disadvantage them.
(Working in partnership with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Work Equity invited leaders from for-profit [n = 298] and nonprofit [n = 733] organizations to respond to the Workplace Equity Survey in September and October of 2021. Key informants [one per organization] from 178 organizations completed the survey for a response rate of 17%. 87% of the organizations were nonprofit, 3% were government public agencies, 7% were for profit and the remainder were other.)
Ageism: Individual Attitudes
There is substantial literature on ageism in the workplace. It is widely accepted that individuals (e.g., supervisors, co-workers) can bring bias and attitudes related to stereotypes to the workplace. Nearly a third (31.9%) of respondents to the 2021 Boston Workplace Equity Study indicated that “Stress related to bias against older workers,” was stressful for employees, “to at least a limited” extent. Our analyses also suggest a relationship between bias against older workers and racial bias in the workplace.
‘Our analyses also suggest a relationship between bias against older workers and racial bias in the workplace.’
We explored relationships between the respondents’ assessments of the pressures that employees experienced during the pandemic and employee stress associated with bias against older workers and found that organizations reporting more stress related to bias against older workers were likely to report the following pressures on employees: working from home and decrease in pay or work hours.
Interestingly, those reporting stress associated with bias against older workers were less likely to report employee pressure associated with uncertainty about long-term employment at their organization.
Inequities in Employment Policies and Practices
There has recently been increased attention to some of the “root causes” or systemic factors that can result in inequities at the workplace. As noted by Bernstein, Bulger, Salipante, and Weisinger (2020), ‘Equity differentiates from inclusion in that it places the outcome at the system or organizational rather than the group or individual level. Equity calls for the righting of systemic and structural injustices. To achieve equity and other benefits of inclusion, it is important to discuss and elevate practices that can move us from diversity to equity.” ’
Organizational systems include formal policies, practices and procedures that are often informal, employee resources, and programs and workplace culture and climate. The Boston Workplace Equity Study included 28 items that were combined to create the Organizational Equity Index.
Our pilot study found no relationship between the extent to which respondents to the Boston Workplace Equity Study identified stress related to biases against older workers and scores on the Organizational Equity Index. This suggests that organizational systems can be assessed as equitable, even at organizations where employees feel pressures from the bias against older workers.
Inequities in Job Structures
The structure of jobs often refers to the rules and resources (formal and informal) that affect how employees perform job tasks. We use the term “flexible job structures” to refer to the extent by which employees and their supervisors have choice and control with regard to “when, where, and how/how much” work is completed.
Previous studies have documented that older workers seek flexible job structures, including reduced-hours per weeks and remote work (Butler, 2020; Stork, 2008). Furthermore, there is some evidence of positive outcomes associated with older workers’ access to and use of flexible job structures. Pitt-Catsouphes and Matz-Costa (2008) reported that having access to flexible job structures that align with their needs has a stronger relationship to work engagement among those ages 45 and older compared to younger workers. The structure of jobs has a direct impact on employees’ work experience, but it tends to be an overlooked aspect of equity.
‘Employers commonly adopt specific types of flexible jobs and offer them to “some” but not “all employees.” ’
Employers commonly adopt specific types of flexible jobs and offer them to “some” but not “all employees.” At some workplaces, only particular groups of employees are eligible (i.e., individual contributors who don’t need to coordinate work with team members).
In other organizations, supervisors have the authority to approve requests for flexible job structures on a case-by-case basis. Rousseau (2001) states, “… idiosyncratic deals are often person-specific and encompass features of employment beyond pay and duties to include hours, location, travel, skill development, and mobility. The phenomenon … creates a new source of flexibility and innovation in the workplace, while raising concerns regarding fairness and consistency.”
The Boston Workplace Equity survey gathered information about 10 types of flexible job structures and found the flexible job structure options reported by the highest percentage of workplaces to be available to “most/almost all” (i.e., 85% or more) of their workers were: choice about paid/unpaid overtime (43.1%), periodically changing starting/quitting times (42.0%), work-from-home—either occasionally or regularly (41.9%), control over weekly schedules (27.9%), and to take paid or unpaid leave for education and training (21.6%).
We combined these responses about flexible job structures to create a Flexible Job Structure Index, which will be available online in January. Our analyses revealed no relationship between employees’ access to flexible work structures and employee pressure associated with bias against older workers, suggesting that employee pressure associated with bias against older workers does not seem to constrain (or support) employee access to flexible work structures.
Employers with a commitment to creating and sustaining an age-friendly workplace need to address the biases that individual employees bring to the workplace. And they should consider an intersectional lens that links bias against older workers and other identity characteristics, such as the experiences of employees of color.
While some employers have adopted specific programs and practices that respond to the priorities of employees of color and other programs and practices that respond to the needs of older workers, workplaces that want to make progress toward inclusion should consider employee supports such as customized mentoring, which has the flexibility to respond to preferences of older employees of color.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the benefits that flexible job structures can offer to employees and employers. Further research will help to examine how employee access to flexible job structures may align with organizations’ equity initiatives and might mitigate against the precipitous withdrawal of some older workers from the labor force.
Samuel L. Bradley, Jr., DSW, is assistant professor and director of the Equity Innovation Lab at the Boston College School of Social Work. Kathleen Christensen, PhD, is director of Work Equity; Tay McNamara, PhD, is a senior researcher in Work Equity; and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD, is professor emerita and Work Equity research director, all at Boston College.