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Coronavirus - Disparate impact by age - UK

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus - Workforce issues
  • Employment law


Following on from our earlier briefings in this series considering the COVID-19 pandemic and diversity issues - Coronavirus: Disparate impact across ethnic backgrounds; Coronavirus - Disparate gender impact; and Coronavirus Disparate impact by reason of disability - in this final briefing in this series we consider some of the age-related disparate impacts of the pandemic.

Is disparate age impact a relevant concern for employers? What should organisations consider to identify and address long-term impact?

With COVID-19-related deaths increasing almost ten-fold for those in the 45 to 64 age range when compared to those aged between 15 to 44, and with around a third of the entire UK workforce aged over 50, all employers are likely to need to consider the existence of age-related health risk in their pandemic response.

However, it’s not just the health risk for older workers where the disparate impact of the pandemic lies: there are also a number of other effects that should not be overlooked, some of which particularly impact younger workers.

Addressing disparate age-related health risk

The current government guidance seeks to address age-related health risks by categorising those who are aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions) as clinically vulnerable, meaning that extra precautions should be taken to seek to avoid COVID-19 risk.

Age-related risk is also acknowledged in other government pandemic response initiatives. For example, in the vaccine roll-out strategy, where once the vaccine has been offered to those individuals in specified categories, it will then be offered by order of age groupings.

In the workplace, occupational risk assessments should take account of known individual vulnerability factors, including age, as well as specific workplace risks and local guidance (such as the Tier guidance in England). In Scotland, a COVID-Age tool has been developed to assist with such assessments, which works by taking the known risks in respect of certain characteristics, and applying them to an individual’s age, which then allows for the calculation of an individual’s “COVID-Age”. That COVID-Age then determines which vulnerability risk category the individual falls within, so that appropriate measures can be taken.

Ages at work - labour market impact

According to government figures and analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), “for young people aged 16-24 there has been a shift from employment to unemployment and inactivity since the start of the pandemic”. and “there has been a flow for older workers aged 65+ from employment to inactivity”. Since the start of the pandemic, the cumulative negative shift in employment levels of those aged 16-24 and 65+ has been in the region of 7%, compared to an approximate 0.5% negative shift for those aged 25-64.

At least in part, it seems that the disparate labour market impact by age may be explained by the retirement of older workers (which in some cases may have been planned prior to the pandemic) and the age distribution of workers in those sectors most impacted by the pandemic. For example, figures published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrate that those aged under 25 were about two and a half times more likely to work in a sector that was required to close operations during the height of the pandemic.

Particularly for younger employees, that sector-based impact is further compounded by lack of experience in work. That factor has consistently featured as an explanation for younger workers being especially vulnerable to becoming unemployed.

In July 2020, the Government published its Plan for Jobs, setting out a number of measures that are specifically aimed at getting young people back into employment. That Plan includes the introduction of the Kickstart Scheme, a fund to create 6-month job placements for 16 to 24 year olds, where funding includes 100% of the relevant national minimum wage for 25 hours a week. Further, a commitment to pay employers in England £2,000 for every new apprentice they hire who is aged under 25.

The Kickstart Scheme is focused on creating new jobs for young workers, with funding conditional on the employer proving that the jobs are new, and are not replacing jobs held by staff who have recently been made redundant. Concerns have already been raised about the protection of existing jobs and whether the job placements under the Scheme will be real, quality jobs that will ultimately provide opportunities for long-term employment beyond the initial subsidised placement as intended.

Workplace reinvention with disparate age impact in mind

While younger people have been one of the groups impacted by higher unemployment as a result of the pandemic, the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics show that they have also been one of the groups often placed on furlough.

With learning from peers and on-the-job learning often being a critical part of development, particularly for younger workers at the start of their careers, the time out of the workplace for those who have been furloughed could have significant impact on long-term development and job progression.

However, it’s not just those that have been furloughed that have felt the impact. Those workers who have continued to work remotely have also been impacted. For example, as a result of home working conditions that have made effective working more difficult or the absence of training or “osmosis” learning through face to face contact with peers.

Indeed, our Reinventing the Workplace survey published in December 2020 that was conducted across a number of global employers found that 40% of respondents had seen patterns emerging in the demographics of those returning to work on a voluntary basis. It was reported that generally younger and older workers had been the groups choosing to return. Further, that sub-optimal home working arrangements were reasons often cited by younger employees as the reason for wanting to return. Those findings echo the findings from an ONS study in July 2020 that found that for workers aged 16 to 29 years who reported that the pandemic was affecting their work, being asked to work from home was one of the most commonly reported impacts. Further, that their wellbeing was impacted, with loneliness and mental health issues being cited as significant causes.

While many workforces continue to work remotely, many are now considering how best to support more junior workers and ensure that any long-term impact on wellbeing and career progression is minimised. For example, putting in place buddying systems and support groups, staggering workplace return to ensure that junior workers are prioritised for attendance and/or identifying ways of continued contact and learning at times when physical attendance cannot be achieved.

The importance of an age-diverse workforce

An age-diverse workplace often brings a whole range of benefits. Getting people of different ages and experiences working together gives value in terms of depth and breadth of knowledge and skills, different perspectives, unique insights, practical industry-specific wisdom, innovative ideas and critical thinking to solve problems, all of which can enrich and improve the workforce. Further, more senior workers often play a critical role in training and mentoring the next generation of workers.

With talent pools unrestricted by location as a result in the increase in remote working, it’s anticipated that many organizations may see high levels of rapid attrition as the market steadies. With a number of studies showing that older workers are more likely to stay with an organisation for longer, those organisations with older or more age-diverse workforces may well be the ones that fare better.

Despite steps taken within recruitment teams to avoid unconscious bias and ensure that appointments are based on merit, the fact remains that it is still often the case that older applicants can stand less chance of being appointed. Further, that age bias often goes unchecked, with no legal obligation to analyse or report recruitment statistics.

Acknowledging the importance of diverse workforces and the benefits of experienced workers, some organisations have conducted initiatives specifically aimed at recruiting workers who have been out of the market for a period of time, including due to retirement. Such “returnship” programmes aim to encourage trained, qualified and experienced individuals back to working life in a supported and often phased manner. An example is Boeing, who have run their “Return Flight Programme” for a number of years.

Practical tips: minimising age-related effect

  • ensure that age-related health risk is accounted for in risk assessments and pandemic measures
  • design working arrangements to ensure that any impact on learning, wellbeing and career progression is minimised
  • analyse company culture and processes to ensure inclusivity and that unconscious bias is avoided
  • be flexible and open to reskilling, regardless of age

Disparate impact by reason of age: Summary

As has been highlighted throughout this series of briefings, while health-related impacts of the pandemic reported on a daily basis in the media are undoubtedly devastating, it is often the more opaque impacts that are overlooked. Age diversity is an example of this, where the impact reaches wider than the clear health impact, to potential long term impacts on skills, development, wellbeing and workforce stability.

With an effective workforce often being the lifeblood of a successful organisation, and studies consistently showing that diverse workforces are the ones that stand out from the crowd in terms of success, taking account of disparate effects in making plans to seek to recover from the pandemic will give competitive edge to help stand organisations in good stead for long-term sustainability.

Equality is a key concern for all businesses, however issues can often be challenging. Drawing on extensive experience and in-depth knowledge, our team of discrimination lawyers can assist in navigating the issues and finding appropriate solutions in this complex and sensitive legal area.