As the UK population ages, it is also becoming increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. Both these demographic shifts impact the world of work.
With workplaces reflecting wider society, they are not only becoming more diverse by encompassing individuals of different age-groups, gender, and race and ethnicity, but also in terms of different education and socio-economic backgrounds, religious and political beliefs, sexual orientation and disability. Employers increasingly recognise the importance of a diverse workforce as a means of attracting the best people, unleashing individual potential and mirroring the communities in which they operate.
People are living longer, healthy lives (although increases in life expectancy have slowed and were exceptionally reversed during the pandemic, at least in the UK). With declining fertility rates, not enough children are being born to compensate, while net immigration to the UK is also reducing. An ageing population means either that people should retire later or it necessitates a fundamental rethink of how both retirement and the medical and caring needs of the elderly are funded. (The UK government recently announced a new Health and Social Care Levy to begin to help meet these costs.) Will people look to their employers to fund their retirement in place of the state? Might employees need to respond to increased life expectancy by postponing retirement? At a national level, should countries with an ageing population seek to encourage a higher birth-rate, with long-term consequences for global resources? Or should they look to greater migration, or merely adapt to an ageing and declining population?
The pandemic has seen numbers in full-time education in the UK increase – a trend which (if it continues) may contribute to pressure on recruitment for some jobs as people delay starting their careers. This will only accelerate the ageing profile of the workforce. Despite the UK having age discrimination laws for over 15 years, prejudices and stereotypes about the potential contribution of those over 70 endure and will need re-evaluating. Employers must ensure they do not ignore the potential of older workers and candidates in their search for the suitable candidates, as skills shortages become more common.
The last census, ten years ago, showed that 86% of the working-age population was white, but the average age of that majority group was significantly higher than that of the minority groups. This heralds an increase over time in minority representation among people of working age. Societal intolerance of discrimination and disadvantage is increasing. The #BlackLivesMatter movement provided a catalyst for action by highlighting the continued obstacles and inequality faced by minority ethnic groups. 61% of Britons think more needs to be done, according to recent surveys.
Calls to make ethnicity pay gap reporting mandatory in the UK are increasing, despite a report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommending that it should remain voluntary. Although the government has not yet made a firm commitment on this issue, businesses will need to respond to wider societal and employee expectations around fairness and transparency and place themselves at the forefront of change.
Commentators have been quick to ascribe divergent values and characteristics to the different generations, although some suggest that such differences are overstated and are actually greater within generations. Unsurprisingly, nonetheless, different age cohorts are influenced contrastingly by the circumstances and key events of their youth. Priorities and values are likely to develop as generations age and their family circumstances change. With baby boomers retiring, millennials assuming increasingly senior roles in organisations and Gen Z entering the workforce, organisations need to understand and adapt to each generation in order to get the best from their people.
Past decades have seen significant advances in improving women’s participation in work and tackling the disadvantage and harassment they faced. Disadvantages in the workforce remain but they are decreasing, as shown by data on female labour market participation, women in senior management positions, and the gender pay gap. This trend is likely to continue as employers and employment law do more to facilitate and encourage those with caring or family responsibilities (predominantly women) to pursue their careers, with more women in senior roles and the gender pay gap continuing to narrow. All measures throughout the G7 nations demonstrate this progress.
Not only is this the right thing for businesses to do, but stakeholder pressure from staff, prospective hires, customers and investors will also ensure that addressing gender inequality remains high on their agenda. The global #MeToo movement has heralded a sea-change in many employers’ approach to sexual harassment, prompting increased focus from governments on combatting this. (The UK government has committed to introduce a new proactive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.) Post-Covid-19, women face specific challenges particularly in relation to jobs, both because of the pandemic (many female-dominated sectors, including childcare, were hit especially hard) and the ongoing impact of technology on largely female-dominated roles.
Issues of discrimination on grounds of gender (a social construct) and sex (a biological construct) promise to remain prominent in both society and the workplace. The years ahead will feature increased attention to LGBT+ rights.
It is only 25 years since disability discrimination was outlawed in the UK, but recognition of the disadvantage to which people with disabilities are subjected in work and their untapped potential contribution is growing. Another disadvantaged group to which many employers are paying greater attention are those disadvantaged by their social or educational background. The Trades Union Congress has for some time been pushing for socio-economic discrimination to be made a protected characteristic under the UK’s Equality Act 2010, to help prevent harassment and discrimination against working-class people. This policy also featured in the Labour Party’s 2019 general election manifesto. Over recent years, technology tools have been playing an increasingly important role in supporting employers moves to address disadvantage in this area.
Demographic change will impact the who and when of work.