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Age differences in the take-up of ‘flexible’ working – why don’t older workers ask?

by on February 9, 2015

This article on the Forbes website asks ‘Are Boomers Afraid to Ask to Work From Home?’ in the context of the rise of so-called flexible working. I say, ‘so-called’ because on another project my colleagues and I have been looking at the daily routines of different groups who have some flexibility in how they work and it looks like for some people this comes at a personal cost.

Kerry Hannon, author of the Forbes piece, takes the view that flexible working is a good thing, seeing it as a means of achieving the ‘freedom and independence’ that she says that many seek in their work.  But she is concerned by findings in the 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study produced by WorkplaceTrends and CareerArc. The report states that ‘Boomers don’t benefit from their flexibility program as much as younger generations. 62% said that the demographic that benefits most is Gen X compared to 35% of Gen Y and only 3% of boomers.’ (We’ll leave aside the problematic issue of generational labeling and over-generalisation.) This assessment of age-based differences is apparently based on what employers say abut employee take-up of such schemes but I can’t check as it looks as if the actual report is only available to members of WorkplaceTrends.

The Forbes article challenges the interpretation offered by the founder of WorkplaceTrends that older workers simply don’t need flexible working as much as their younger colleagues. Kerry Hannon instead offers this explanation:

My educated explanation is that the study’s finding indicates that boomers are more reluctant to ask for the freedom of working from home because they are afraid of losing their job. It’s hard enough as an older worker to get hired, and there’s the niggling concern that an employer is looking for a way to replace you with someone younger, who commands a lower salary.’

She may well be right. Or could it be that older workers realise some of the hidden personal costs involved in flexible working and choose not to access these workplace programmes? Or do age norms mean that it feels harder to justify a request for flexible working in later life? Or could all these factors play a part?

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