by Jonathan Lee
As Joan Collins famously said. “Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless you happen to be a bottle of wine.” She’s right of course. Age is just a number. But if you are over fifty and working in a UK advertising / comms agency, the reality is it’s a very small number! Only 6.3% of IPA agency employees are over age 50, compared with 31% of the UK workforce. 44% of UK agency staff are under 30. (IPA Future of fairness report). The issue is not restricted to the UK, the picture for the US is identical, with people over 50 representing about 45% of adults and only 6% of agency employees.
Agencies and their holding companies understand the importance of diversity. It matters to thier staff; it matters to their clients and ultimately the quality of their creative product. Unsurprisingly, D&I initiatives abound, and whilst you could argue about their individual effectiveness, collectively, you can’t fault the effort. Indeed, we should be proud of the stance the industry has taken on issues such as Black Lives Matter.
On age however, little more than a deafening silence. The latest industry initiative the All in Census and Action Plan recognizes the lack of age diversity, but importantly, no age-related initiative was called out in its action plan. The IPA’s future of fairness report includes a comment that attempts to reframe lack of age diversity, not as ageism but expensivism. The older the employee the more expensive their wage costs. To be clear, expensivism is structural ageism. Ageism baked into the agency business model!
There is a strong case for our industry to make ageism a much more prominent part of the D&I agenda. It impacts not just people of age. The All in Census noted a frustration in younger age groups around recognition of value vs colleagues of equal competence. It’s well recognized that ageism intersects and exacerbates other forms of disadvantage including those related to sex, race, and disability. Ageism, in no small part, contributes to the loss of great black and female talent from our industry and erodes all the great work done by other D&I initiatives. As Ashton Applewhite, author, and activist states in her Ted Talk Let’s End Ageism. You are either old or future old! Agencies actively addressing ageism benefits us all.
Whilst we await industry leadership to catch up, there are several simple things individual agencies can do to improve cross generational collaboration. A strategy proven to reduce ageism.
1. Avoid Management by Generational Stereotypes
Generational stereotypes—positive or negative—are never helpful in the workplace. Too many management decisions within agencies appear to be based on perceived generational stereotypes rather than a real understanding of cross-generational needs.
2. Establish and Celebrate Mutual Mentoring
Pairing age diverse colleagues to mutually mentor is a no brainer. The massive imbalance in age that currently exists within agencies is a barrier to its implementation but just doing it sends an important message beyond the individuals it directly impacts.
3. Continue to Prioritize Flexibility
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has focused the industry on the importance of flexibility related to work location. The opportunities a hybrid working model provides are great for all on the age spectrum. Resisting the pressure of a return to the old normal will be key.