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Freezing female employees eggs: What does this say about age norms in Silicon Valley?

We couldn’t not cover this story which has received considerable press coverage and extensive online reader comments.

Last week it was reported (for example, as here in The Telegraph) that Apple and Facebook, two of the American tech giants, will pay for female employees to freeze their eggs as another ‘work perk’. The rationale is said to be that women can then continue to work through their twenties and thirties without stopping for a few months to have a child and so inevitably fall behind their male counterparts.

Now, we have blogged several times before on the gendered and age norms of Silicon Valley companies whose staff profiles suggest that men are favoured over women (as mentioned here in The Independent) and youth over older age (as here in The New Statesman). This announcement however has caused many commentators to unpack some of the implicit assumptions behind such a move. These include:

  • that women need to be treated differently from men;
  • that delaying children is professional beneficial for women (but not men) because young adulthood is only time which counts in getting ahead in an IT/tech career;
  • that it marks a rather sinister interest in women’s bodies by their employers; and
  • that the decision to have children can be put off  until female employees are too old to be of any use (at which point their gender is irrelevant).

One reader comment here in The Guardian put the alternative: Why not ‘let women have children when they want them – without it harming their careers? If they really cared that much, they’d make their companies sufficiently flexible to welcome back talented women… and not make them feel pressured to devote everything to their careers and freeze their eggs’. And why not make it so that jobs and career advancement are not only linked to performance in young adulthood?

Generational stereotypes …. again!

Earlier this week an Australian TV show was under fire for asking “name something people think is a woman’s job”, and reported here in the Sydney Morning Herald, widely criticized for counting as correct answers that included cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, nursing, doing the dishes, hairdressing and domestic duties.

Yet stereotypes about generational categories continue unabated and often with very little reaction.  Here for example is an article about ‘differences’ in work-life balance in the Huffington Post.  This includes broad statements such as “international travel is also important to Millennials” and “Millennials are also happiest in the workplace when they feel they are part of a team”.

Now obviously there is a difference in the tone of this article and the aforementioned quiz but the generalization and stereotyping going on here might not be that different.  Not least because of what these statements infer about either other generational groups OR about the limitations of the particular group under consideration.

Here is another example, from “Chief Learning Officer” Magazine: “Millennials have unique characteristics — just as every generation does. They were the first generation born with technology; it is like breathing air to them. As a result, they are able to easily adapt to and apply new technologies”.

As regular readers will know, we at Age at Work would contest the simplistic representation of ‘unique characteristics’ which here are presented as overriding other factors such as individual personality.  The generalization of this group as ‘naturally’ technologically skilled not only underplays the education process but also effectively rules out this ‘talent’ as being possessed by other groups.

Both the theoretical basis of generations (especially the means by which key events are believed to produce key psychological differences in group members) AND the empirical evidence of such differences is hotly debated.  Yet time and time again we see the promotion of generations as a means of understanding differences at work, often conflated with chronological or other definitions of age.

As Deal and colleagues concluded in 2010 findings regarding millennials are ‘confusing at best and contradictory at worst’ (2010, p. 191)

(Deal, J.J., Altman, D.G., & Rogelberg, S.G. (2010). Millennials at Work: What We Know and What We Need to Do (If Anything). Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 191-199.)

Global Perspectives on Youth Employment

With falling unemployment in the UK we perhaps risk becoming complacent about the global challenge of youth unemployment.  This piece by Richard Jones for Devex, provides a very useful summary of both the issues and recent initiatives on the international stage.  Highlighting the “dangerous cocktail of high unemployment, precarious and low-quality temporary work, and persistently high working poverty in both the developed and developing world” Richard provides an introduction to the work of RTI on youth employment  and the ongoing efforts on the International Labour Organization who have continually campaigned for more attention to this issue.  There is an ongoing debate about the need for both immediate action (particularly in some countries) and the requirement for long-term sustainable approaches.  These concerns are of course echoed across many different aspects of the international development agenda and it remains to be seen if the work on youth unemployment can be one of the first to make real inroads to the problems and real difference across the world.


How you format a document gives away your age and Unum’s take on the ageless workplace

Here’s one especially for my co-blogger Rebecca!  We are frequently reporting on ‘top tips’ advice for older job applicants and here is another one from the Business Insider.  However this is the first one that has had me screaming ‘noooooo’ at the screen.  Why?  Because Number 4 on the list of five is as follows:

4. Double spacing after periods (fullstops)

“I am going to go out a limb and declare that putting two spaces after a period is obsolete,” Miller explains. “It is how most of us were taught to type on a typewriter. Therefore, most of us who do this (I have taught myself to stop putting two spaces after a period and it was hard) are over 50 years of age.”

Miller says he has heard that this has been used as a method of screening out older candidates.

Yes this is going out on a limb!  I have always argued and will continue to that ‘correct’ format is two spaces after a full stop  AND shock horror I am not over 50.  This is a slight bone of contention between Rebecca and myself when we write together – though so far I believe I have managed to win that particular battle!

On a different note there was a ripple on Twitter yesterday when Unum issues a report on key trends for the future workplace with a rather interesting graphic and identifying four trends: the ageless workforce, the mindful workforce, the intuitive workforce and the collaborative workforce.  Truth be told there didn’t seem to be much of an evidence base for their ideas, and certainly not one which drew on academic research.  It was also written in rather poor marketing speak providing soundbites such as: “The ageless workforce enables ‘returnment’ instead of ‘retirement’ and enables people to work forever”.  Yes they really did say “forever”, firmly stating that this is what employees want.  However in this happily every after story that’s OK because it will be a “zenergetic workplace” (no I did not make that up).

The more detailed section on the ‘Ageless Workplace’ focused almost exclusively on older workers and suggested that “the workplace is becoming increasingly ageless because employees no longer see age as a factor in work ability”.  Reports of age discrimination by both younger and older workers would seem to highlight that the problem might be that EMPLOYERS don’t share this view.  A few pages on the report offers an “ageless workplace toolkit” which is in fact a list of ten bullet points.

As for the methodology, interviews with 9 experts and a survey of 1000 workers in a select number of sectors does not really support the claims that are put forward.  Not sure what they were aiming for here but I can’t help but think they missed the mark.

Changing views on later life – is it a different story for men and women?

Two stories caught my eye this morning.

Firstly the independent suggests that “isolation and loneliness await growing number of men” in retirement because of the lack of contact with family and friends.  Particularly focusing on men over 50 who lived alone the article suggests that organisations must do more to  help in retirement and identify opportunities to provide support which “could have the potential to keep older men socially connected in post-work life”.

The independent article also suggests a trend of men living longer and outliving their partners is starting to impact their experiences of later life.  This is interesting when set against the statistics reported in the Daily Mail and Telegraph today which both highlight ONS figures suggesting that “women are less likely to outlive men as workplace takes it toll” (in the Telegraph) and that the” stress of a career is harming women’s health” (Daily Mail).  These articles highlight that male health and life expectancy are improving with factors such as reduced smoking and improved health and safety at work cited as significant factors.  However as more women work for longer so the gaps between male and female life expectancy is falling (now an average of 3.8 years) though this is set against overall increases for both genders.

While there are many lifestyle issues at play here both stories feature a significant discussion about the impact of our working lives on later life.  To find out more you can read the full report of the ONS review of mortality statistics over the last 50 years on their website.

Tales from the US: “I’ll be working until the end”

While not an article that headlines age issues, this piece from NBC entitled “Highly Educated, Unemployed and Tumbling down the ladder“, features personal stories of those over 40 who are struggling with long-term unemployment.  Many of the cases that are featured have returned to study later in life (to complete an MBA for example) and are also struggling with student debts while worrying about funding their children’s college education.

It is not always easy to feel sympathy for all those covered – having two houses and complaining about cash flow is a quite a difficult sell.  Though as the article points out these individuals often had ‘further to fall’ and increased financial liabilities that they often (according to the stories reported) didn’t really seem to face up to straight away)

But a common theme is those who find themselves job hunting after many years of a career on an upward trajectory is hard to avoid.  And at that point it seems difficult not to conclude that age discrimination is a key factor.

In the article, an interviewee called Gomez says “I have been applying and looking for pretty much anything at this stage…I applied to a supermarket as a deli clerk because I used to be a deli clerk as a teenager,”.  He was told he was overqualified and turned down.

The article highlights that in looking for entry and lower management jobs than they previously held those “tumbling down the ladder” bump up against those on the way up who are typically at least ten years longer and without a period of unemployment on their CV.

As one interviewee says of taking minimum wage and temporary jobs as a result of being unable to find a permanent position : “I probably won’t retire. I probably will be working until the end the way things look now”.

“Talented, ambitious young people” and “Recent graduates”: Discriminatory ads?

More today on possible age discrimination. The BBC reports here that adverts on the Government’s Universal Jobmatch website, and ones on employment agency Reed’s website, may breach anti-age discrimination laws.

The ads in question, over 800 on the Reed website on behalf of hundreds of employers, say they want “recent graduates” which may imply they are looking for younger applicants. One ad posted on behalf of Leisure Leagues is even more explicit, stating: “We are always looking to recruit talented, ambitious young people who may fit well into one of our progressive thinking departments such as media, including social media, TV, press officer or other departments such as office administration.”

Leaving aside the perhaps unique positioning of office administration as a ‘progressive thinking department’, what’s the legal position?

The BBC asked James Davies, a solicitor from law firm Lewis Silkin, who specialises in age discrimination cases. He is reported as saying: “A recent graduate obviously favours younger candidates. It would be lawful if it could be justified, but it’s difficult to see why an employer needs a recent graduate when someone who graduated 10 or 20 years ago wouldn’t be equally suitable”.

Of the Leisure Leagues advert, he says: “Here we have a company which is clearly opening itself up to problems. An older person applying for a job with this company who fails to get it will be able to point to the term ‘young’ in this advert and will be some way down the line to a successful claim against them.”

Age and the UK armed forces: A legal challenge

This is a very different context to most of the material we read and report on but it is absolutely on topic as an ‘age at work’ issue. Yesterday’s Independent reported here that the Ministry of Defence faces a legal challenge over its recruitment of child soldiers.

The term ‘child soldiers’ conjures up images of very young boys holding guns almost as tall as them, mostly in war torn countries. So it’s a shock both to see the UK’s armed forces recruits conceptualised in this way and indeed to see that the UK has recruits as young as 16. This is out of step with the rest of Europe and public opinion in the UK is apparently strongly against the practice. The policy is that recruits under 18 are not deployed in operations though the personal account of one young recruit that appears at the end of the article suggests this does not prevent significant psychological damage once deployed at age 18.

The claim for judicial review is brought by the charity Child Soldiers International (CSI) which says that the terms of enlistment for minors joining the British Army amounts to age discrimination. This is because British soldiers currently have to serve until they are 22 regardless of their joining age: a 16-year-old recruit must serve a minimum of six years whereas adults can be discharged after four years’ service.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the legal challenge can be pursued and/or whether campaigning publicity by various charities together with public opinion bring about a change in policy.

Working longer – and longer: target to increase average retirement age

There was extensive coverage in the media yesterday of Pensions Minister Steve Webb’s pronouncement that Britons need to accept dramatically longer working lives. Apparently this could mean pushing average retirement age up by 6 months every year in order to avoid a health care funding crisis.

The statement has been misunderstood by some readers, if the comments are anything to go by, with some believing that this means their own retirement age (as opposed to the national average) has to go up by 6 months every year.

As reported here in The Telegraph his announcement is framed as a “catching up” exercise, drawing on longer life expectancy, and as achievable by reference to increases in average retirement age for women over recent years.

But there is a big difference between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy which is very relevant to the ability to work and where there are striking differences between occupational and geographical groups. And the issue of women’s retirement is the result of a very specific initiative to iron out the gender difference that used to exist in State Pension Age. So I’m not sure these are valid factors to draw on to sell this idea.

Does diversity include age at Microsoft?

Microsoft released its ‘diversity stats’ at the end of last week and these have been picking up press attention as here on the CNET news site and here on PC Magazine.

Most of the coverage seems to focus on the gender and ethnicity breakdown: there is a 70-to-30 ratio of male to female employees and nearly 60% of its employees are white and about 30% are Asian.  But there is little (no?) mention in the media of the age range of its staff.

So I had a look at the Microsoft website itself, specifically its section on ‘Global Diversity and Inclusion’. This is described as a new online portal that goes in depth into the numbers. And guess what, I couldn’t find anything about the age of its employees there either.

What I did find were the following series of Employee Resource Groups: Asians, Blacks, Cross disAbility, LGBT, Latino Hispanic, Parents, Women. These are exactly as they appear on the website and are clearly the meaningful categories for Microsoft in relation to its workforce, representing active groups within the company. There is also an Employee Network called Boomers at Microsoft but I couldn’t find out anything more about it other than it is one of dozens of such networks which are mostly themed around national or ethnic lines.

Eventually I searched the Microsoft news section of their website and found this link (you have to scroll down a long way) which gives a ‘reported age breakout’ of its workforce in the USA. According to this, the figures are:

29 or Under 10,532 17.1%
30-39 23,176 37.5%
40+ 28,048 45.4%

This gives an average age of 38.7 years. OK, but that was hard work. And I still wonder if Microsoft don’t think that age is part of diversity. As they say about the diversity stats, ‘more work to be done’.


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