In 2002, a year into my first job in adland, a story ran in The Guardian with the headline "Ad industry fails to retain the over-40s". The story was on the back of an IPA report that showed less than 20% of people in UK agencies were over 40 and just 6% were over 50.
Fast-forward to this March and the IPA Agency Census showed a significant drop of 22% in the over-60s, stating Covid-19 has hit job losses in the younger, under-25s, and older, over-40s, the hardest. The issue of ageism in adland isn't new, it's an age-old problem, but it isn't getting any better, and now the pandemic has made it into a full-blown crisis.
To make matters worse, the ONS reported this month that there are now 193,000 fewer people aged 50 or over employed in the UK, and that older people who become unemployed are more likely to be at risk of long-term unemployment than younger people. Brett Arends, an award-winning financial writer, cited research from the National Bureau of Economic Research saying that "age discrimination rises hand in hand with the unemployment rate". There's no denying it, the data looks bleak.
What I can't understand is how our industry keeps missing the point. We all write, talk, and create initiatives about attracting and retaining talent and championing diversity and inclusion, yet nothing changes longer term. We all know words are empty unless they are supported by actions. So why haven't things got better for the industry since that Guardian piece first ran almost two decades ago?
Quite frankly, "the industry" hasn't listened to its own recommendations. But the people working within it, who are being affected by it, have. Those 40-plus in marketing, media and advertising who've been made redundant over the past 18 months are showing grit, resilience and a determination to rise up from the ashes. As the shape of our industry was forced to change, both culturally and structurally in 2020, I'm starting to believe that this horrific time, which created so much disruption and pain for employees over the age of 40, is going to be the catalyst for change, making the industry work better for them.
New ways of working have opened opportunities. Rigid and often outdated working hours, along with archaic team structures, are finally being reviewed, as WFH and hybrid working offer greater flexibility and inclusivity. We are seeing extended office opening hours so people can come in when it suits them and 3:2 ratios for working from home.
Time away from the industry has also been spent wisely. Online communities have been sharing recommendations for upskilling, like the ESSEC Business School courses, and supporting each other. LinkedIn, once filled with daily boosts about promotions and new-business wins, is connecting people with shared needs. Mentoring, and reverse mentoring, has played a massive role in keeping people connected to the industry and supplying those in need with confidence to stay part of this world and to go for job roles.
First off, though, people need to be made aware of jobs they can apply for. The industry needs to address and speak directly to the talent pool they want to employ to help tackle ageism. Where people are recruited from, the wording and criteria in the ads being used are all barriers that are facilitating ageism. For example, removing the number of years of experience, so you can attract younger and older candidates. Even the interview process itself needs addressing; people have biases. This is where blind CVs and recruitment platforms that remove characteristics of people can really help.
Leadership, associations, industry bodies, everyone who sets the tone for our industry needs to take responsibility and action to change ageism. That's why I founded 40 Over Forty last year to give those who are 40-plus, who feel ignored by the industry, a platform to be recognised. Not just words, we need action. Perhaps agencies could implement proactive age-diversifying policies, like many businesses have in place for gender, ethnicity and neurodiversity. This could help attract the talent, then we just need to work on retaining them.
This is not about one group of society being more important or valuable than the other, it's about acknowledging certain demographics are being hit harder, especially when it comes to keeping or applying for jobs in this industry. With the industry-wide "All In Census" reporting respondent numbers dwindling in the upper age ranges, we can now gauge the true extent of the problem. Diversity must be achieved to allow our industry to continue and strive to make even better work.
Anna Dalziel is senior vice president, director of marketing communications, global, at Momentum Worldwide, and founder of 40 Over Forty