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Looking Beyond the Wrinkles

Looking Beyond the Wrinkles

Looking Beyond the Wrinkles

Why contact centers must retain and hire aging workers.

Ageism is arguably the oldest (in more ways than one), most pervasive, and cruelest form of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. It signifies that the individual in question is no longer a contributing, hence valuable member of society and is instead a burden that has to be supported by everyone else.

Employers and coworkers often see older employees as less productive and incapable of learning new techniques and technologies. These perceptions often cause older workers to miss out on promotions.

“Ageism is a systemic problem with enormous financial and social consequences.” —Brent Holland

So more seasoned workers are being pushed out while applicants of their age are discreetly not hired.

But here’s the rub: there are strong signs that this ageism hurts employers—including contact centers—and the economy as a whole.

Brent Holland

In a recent interview with Contact Center Pipeline, Brent Holland, founder and CEO, Intelliante, who has a deep background in contact center recruiting and whose company provides automated pre-employment testing, cited these data points:

AARP estimates that the U.S. economy underperformed by $850 billion due to age discrimination in 2018, including $87.4 billion in the professional and business services industry. Making matters worse is that the impact of age discrimination is forecasted to rise to nearly $4 trillion by 2050.

  • A large-scale study found that the callback rate for job applicants was approximately 28% lower for the oldest (64-66) versus the youngest (29-31) applicants. And, at least in sales, the results show that women are less likely to receive a callback than men, perhaps reflecting a combination of ageism and sexism.
  • Despite corporations’ commitment to creating a more inclusive environment, a survey found that only 47% of companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies included age.
  • Compounding matters is that approximately 10% of men and 8% of women aged 50-64 reported feeling forced to retire because of their age.

“Ageism is a systemic problem with enormous financial and social consequences,” says Brent.

Here are the key issues covered in our conversation:

Q. Let’s set the table

  • How many contact center agents are there in the U.S. and Canada? Is this number increasing or decreasing?
  • What is the split between full-time/part-time employees?
  • What is the demographic breakdown?

Brent Holland: Here are the data based on our research and estimates, and drawing from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S.) and Statistics Canada (Canada).

  • U.S. contact centers employed 2,898,900 agents in 2022, whereas 707,400 agents worked in Canadian centers.
  • Data is fleeting for 2022 but available for 2021.

In 2021, the number of men declined by 1.5%, and women increased by 5.1% in U.S. customer service representative jobs, producing a net increase of jobs over 2020. Within the Canadian contact center industry, the percentage of men increased by .004%, and women decreased by .006%, producing a net reduction of approximately 300 workers.

  • Here is the full-time/part-time split:
  • U.S. Full Time: 2,086,000 (58% Women)
  • U.S. Part Time: 812,000
  • Canada Full Time: 540,100
  • Canada Part Time: 167,300
  • Most customer service representatives in the U.S. are 34.6 years of age, white (71.8%), and women (64.8%). Table 1 breaks down the ethnicity.

Although not exclusive to the contact center industry, nearly 12% of office and administrative support workers identify with one or more disabilities, most of whom are women (17.9%).

Canadian data for Business, Building, and Other Support Services suggest that most workers are men (56.5%) and between 25 and 54 years of age (62%).

Q. What factors are causing the changes that you have seen and expect to see?

Brent Holland: Many changes (e.g., work-from-home [WFH] and headcount) reflect the COVID-19 pandemic’s direct and indirect fallout.

First, before the pandemic, job applicants ranked corporate citizenship, shared values, and environmental improvement as the most important factors.

Fast-forward to today. When allowed to work flexibly, nearly 90% of workers take it. Moreover, job applicants rank a flexible work arrangement as the third most crucial consideration behind better pay and career opportunities.

Second, many companies reduced their headcount in early 2020 due to the global upheaval caused by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic slowdown. The U.S. and Canadian governments responded with stimulus packages to reignite the economies.

The interventions worked. By Q3 2021, the U.S. GDP exceeded pre-COVID-19 levels, with Canada reaching the milestone in Q1 2022.

The consequences of the stimulus packages – inflation and recession – began taking effect in early 2022, with the first signs of a U.S. economic slowdown; Canada was not far behind. Many forecasts pointed to significant economic headwinds heading into 2023.

Contact centers are demand-driven businesses, making them susceptible to economic ebb and flow. As consumer spending slows, demand inevitably follows, creating downward pressure on headcount.

Finally, I anticipate a shift towards outsourced contact centers in 2023 as companies combat rising costs and lower spending without sacrificing the personal experiences that consumers demand.

Ultimately, the impact on the industry’s headcount will depend on how quickly the economies recover. As of today, I anticipate an overall reduction in agent headcount over the next 12 months.

Q. What about the age of the workforce?

Brent Holland: Looking to the future, U.S. and Canadian employers must adapt to an increasingly aging workforce.

Between 1951 and 2021, U.S. and Canadian birth rates declined by 50% and 63%, respectively. These long-term declines are causing the population to age at an alarming rate. Between 2000 and 2021, the median age in the U.S. increased from 35.4 to 38.8 years and from 36.8 to 41.1 years in Canada.

Over the next two decades, I anticipate that the most successful companies will be leaders in hiring, engaging, developing, and retaining older workers.

Q. Let’s look in-depth at the aging (45+) segment. Is the contact center becoming older or younger, and why?

Brent Holland: The age of the U.S. population increased by 3.4 years between 2000 and 2021 to 38.8 years.

Based on these trends, it’s reasonable to expect the average age of customer service representatives to increase too, but data suggest otherwise. The average age of U.S. customer service representatives was 36.4 years in 2014 and 34.6 years in 2021.

Canadian data are less precise but portray an aging workforce. Table 2 shows the relative percentage of workers in different age groups. The proportion of 15 – 24 and 25 – 54 workers declined, while the 55+ age bracket increased by 5.1%.

Q. Should contact centers actively recruit aging workers, and if so, why? What issues, if any, have been encountered with older agents? And what are the common myths - and realities - of aging workers?

Brent Holland: Historically, contact centers targeted recruitment toward workers in the 18 – 34 age bracket. However, as the population ages, contact centers must begin catering to older workers to sustain growth. There are at least five advantages of hiring older workers, including:

  1. Reliability. Older workers stay longer and take fewer days off.
  2. Skill and Experience. More mature workers bring capabilities built on decades of work and problem-solving.
  3. A closing gap. Older workers resemble their younger counterparts’ health, education, and technology skills.
  4. Wage similarity. Contrary to popular perception, more mature workers do not cost significantly more than younger workers.
  5. Availability. The population is aging quickly. For example, the percentage of Americans 65 or older increased by 36% (2009 to 2019) versus a 3% increase for those under age 65.

What are the disadvantages of hiring older workers? Some articles point to concerns such as an unwillingness to embrace technology, inflexibility, higher costs, and resistance to feedback.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these concerns are myths. As we discussed above, the data does not support them.

Sophocles said, “No enemy is worse than bad advice.” Across Canada and the U.S., many company policies, whether explicit or implicit, reflect misinformation about the value of older workers.

“Historically, contact centers targeted recruitment toward workers in the 18 – 34 age bracket...as the population ages, contact centers must begin catering to older workers to sustain growth.” —Brent Holland

Common Myths and Realities:

  1. Older workers miss more days and cost more. Data show that older workers are more reliable and often cost less to employ.
  2. They are not as productive. Research shows no difference in companies’ financial performance due to the percentage of older workers.
  3. Older workers struggle to learn technology. Decades-old studies found older people (60-75) to be less comfortable and have less control over computers, though experience did improve their attitudes. However, these people did not interact with technology until later in life. Today, most older workers -- are more familiar and comfortable with technology. As examples, they flocked to social media in the early 2000s and video with the pandemic. After all, this generation designed, programmed, and built the computers, communications tools, and networks that are the foundations of those we now use.
  4. Mature workers are more likely to quit. But the data show that older people stay longer than younger workers.
  5. They are less physically capable. Although we all experience physical declines as we age, older workers learn to adapt and compensate for these declines.

One area where data show a significant difference between younger and older (> 40) workers occurs with some high-fidelity pre-employment tests.

For example, CC Audition’s technical manual (Harver.com), a contact center simulation used to screen job applicants, reports that applicants under 40 score significantly higher than people aged 40 or higher. The under-40 scoring advantage remained intact across the original (2011) and revised manuals (2015).

“Today, most older workers --are more familiar and comfortable with technology. As examples, they flocked to social media in the early 2000s and video with the pandemic.” —Brent Holland

Q. Aren’t there laws that forbid employment discrimination both hiring and in retaining employees based on age?

Brent Holland: The World Health Organization defines ageism as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people based on their age. It can be institutional, interpersonal or self-directed.”

The types of workplace behaviors construed as ageism include direct employment discrimination (e.g., hiring, promoting, firing, and compensation) and other, more subtle acts, including:

  • Mocking, insulting, or age-related ridicule.
  • Joking or making fun of older people.
  • Creating or supporting stereotypes about age.

The U.S. and Canada protect workers against age-related discrimination.

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) forbids companies from discriminating against workers based on age. The Act protects applicants and employees aged 40 years and older from discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, and terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

Workers must show that an employer discriminated against them because of their age, and that’s not always easy to prove.

At a minimum, an applicant or employee must meet the following criteria: (a) be 40 years of age or older, (b) demonstrate qualifications for the position, (c) demonstrate an adverse action by the employer (e.g., not being hired or being fired), and (d) demonstrate that the employer’s decision was because of the person’s age.

Suppose an applicant or worker meets the above standards. In that case, the employer can show that their actions were legitimate and unrelated to age.

  • All Canadian provinces and territories protect workers from age-related discrimination based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Though the details vary across locations, the laws generally prevent employers from refusing to hire, train, promote, or downsize due to age.

For example, laws protect people aged 18 or older in Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan from discrimination. In British Columbia, age discrimination laws apply to people aged 19 or over.

Like in the U.S., Canadian applicants or employees must demonstrate that the adverse behavior is due to their age. And, at least in British Columbia, the person must file a complaint within six months.

“Contact centers need to rethink their employer value proposition to capitalize on the value of mature employees.” —Brent Holland

Q. What are your recommendations for contact centers to help them retain and recruit aging workers?

Brent Holland: The economic benefits of employing older workers are clear. Why wouldn’t a contact center hire more reliable, less expensive, productive, and competent employees?

Contact centers need to rethink their employer value proposition to capitalize on the value of mature employees.

They can take four steps to begin the transformation:

  1. Invest in continuous education and training. Many contact centers have ready-built training and development infrastructure that can scale to support older workers with modest effort.
  2. Educate employees about ageism and how unconscious biases can negatively impact others. Although unintentional, bias affects all of us. In my experience, many contact center supervisors discount the talents of older workers, wrongfully thinking that they lack the technical skill or speed to deliver the expected results.
  3. Create and enforce age-inclusive policies to protect workers from age discrimination. Contact centers must create policies and hold themselves accountable for action. They must abandon the myth that older workers are albatross on company resources, and they must do so quickly if they wish to remain competitive in the future.
  4. Actively provide career paths for all workers. Do people stop caring about advancement when they turn 40, 50, 60, or 70? Although some older workers may prioritize things over promotion, others won’t. In my opinion, that’s an individual’s decision, not the company’s. The company should create performance- and competency-based career paths that reward talented individuals interested in advancement: regardless of demography.

WFH and Aging Agents

There appears to have been a major - and profound - shift of the contact center workforce from the office full-time to their homes at least part of the time.

According to Brent Holland, before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 10% of U.S. contact center agents worked remotely/work-from-home (WFH).

Nearly three years later, he says that contact centers continue to adapt to macroeconomic and workforce issues.

“One outcome is that the mixture of remote, hybrid, and in-center workers constantly changes, making it difficult to isolate the precise distribution of workers,” says Brent. “Nevertheless, survey data allow us to project the current allotment of agents across environments.

For example, current estimates suggest that 55% to 65% of agents work remotely, at least part-time. Over time, industry experts expect the distribution of workers to settle around 70% -75% of agents working in an office versus 20% to 25% remote.

“The above data allow us to deduce that 35% to 45% of agents work in the office,” points out Brent. “However, they lack the precision to distinguish the percentage of hybrid and remote workers.”

But has the COVID-19-driven shift to remote/hybrid work helped or hindered aging contact center employees?

“I believe the shift has benefitted aging workers for three reasons,” says Brent.

First, older workers are more susceptible to COVID-19 and its variants, making WFH a safer option.

Second, mature workers often have a well-developed work ethic and the essential technical skills to thrive in more autonomous environments.

Third, emerging data suggest that older workers may delay retirement while WFH.”

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

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