‘There’s no expiry date on productivity': Ageism keeps many companies from benefiting from older workers

Carol
Carol Devenny is chief financial officer for the Equality Fund. Photo by Michelle Valberg/Valberg Imaging

Forty years ago, Carol Devenny blazed a path for future female accountants when she joined the Ottawa office of PwC with the goal of becoming a partner. Today, she’s leading the way again by proving that a second career in your 60s is not only possible, it’s fulfilling. 

Devenny took on the role of chief financial officer for Equality Fund after stepping away from PwC in 2020. She didn’t have a choice; she had reached the mandatory retirement age of 60. Devenny knew that she wanted to keep working, even as she was preparing to exit PwC. 

“I thrive on helping to solve business problems and dealing with people and issues and I just wanted to continue to contribute.”

She put careful thought into what she wanted to do next. Unfortunately, there weren’t many female role models she could look to. 

“My mother’s generation worked a little bit and then had kids and stayed home,” says Devenny, who joined PwC at 21, become partner at 35, and held the role of office managing partner for six years. She also married and started a family.

Devenny found support and guidance through a like-minded local group called the League of Extraordinary Women. 

 ‘What now?’

 “We’re a generation with a 40-plus-year professional career and extensive experience and what now? It was out of those discussions that I realized what I was most passionate about was helping other women,” says Devenny, who had been actively involved in leadership programs that promoted women both at PwC and in the broader business community.

It was Ottawa consultant Bob Plamondon who brought the position at Equality Fund to Devenny’s attention, thinking she might know a qualified candidate to fill the role. She did: herself. 

Equality Fund, which is based in Ottawa, was launched in 2019 with a $300-million contribution from the federal government. Its goal is to build the largest self-sustaining fund for gender equality in the world.

“Every single day I’m using my skill sets, but I’m also driving change and finding opportunities,” says Devenny, who works with a staff of 55, predominantly younger women. “We are all on the same mission and share the same vision to help women and girls, which is very powerful.”

Devenny, 61, also contributes a couple of hours a month as a senior advisor with consulting firm StrategyCorp. As for volunteer work, she heads the finance and audit committee for the National Arts Centre Foundation and chairs the board of the Ottawa Community Foundation.

 It’s hard to walk away

Koble Commercial Real Estate & Brokerage considered itself lucky when Richard Getz, 67, agreed to join its business last year as a senior advisor. It offered him the role after learning that he was retiring from Colonnade BridgePort as its vice-president of retail. With 40 years’ experience in the shopping mall industry, Getz had built strong relationships, established a stellar reputation, accumulated considerable knowledge and could serve as a mentor to others, says Marc Morin, partner and co-founder of Koble. 

“For us, it was just a gift for Richard to want to join us. He’s got so much value to add,” says Morin. 

“It’s hard to just walk away, cold turkey,” Morin adds. “This allows (Getz) to contribute and to continue to leverage his networks and those relationships. We’re just thrilled that he’s there and part of the team.”

It was agreed that Getz wouldn’t have set hours. “He comes in and meets with us once a week when we have a sales meeting and, aside from that, it’s on his schedule, when he wants to work and how he wants to work,” says Morin. “We’ve really left that open to him.”

Ageist beliefs and myths

More Canadians than ever before are working past the traditional retirement age of 65, either because they want to or they have to. 

“Because we’re living longer, retirement is a notion of the past,” says Helen Hirsh Spence, founder and CEO of Top Sixty Over 60, an Ottawa-based social enterprise that offers consulting, thought leadership and training on age diversity and inclusion.

Of course, not every seasoned professional has the assurance that, when one door closes, another will open.

“Most people do not want to retire but they feel obliged to retire, they get forced out because of ageist beliefs and myths, all of which have been debunked by the research,” says Hirsh Spence.

“Most people would rather stay in the workplace in some capacity, but what they want is flexibility.”

Employers not only profit from loyal and engaged older employees who provide guidance, expertise and balance, says Hirsh Spence, but bringing older adults back into the workforce is also a solution to the current talent shortage.

Research has shown that when companies have a multigenerational workforce, it has a greater impact on the retention of younger people and that the different age groups learn from one another, she adds. 

In 2021, the World Health Organization released a global report on aging, calling for urgent action to combat ageism because of its widespread impacts on health and well-being. Ageism is defined as “a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old”. It can be explicit or implicit and can take the form of negative attitudes, discriminatory activities or institutional practices.

Ageism is so pervasive that 82 per cent of individuals between the ages of 50 and 80 experience it on a daily basis, according to a National Poll on Healthy Aging published in the U.S. in 2020.

Remaining in the workforce also helps to stave off social isolation for older people, says Hirsh Spence. 

“Women are better at staying in touch and finding people to talk to. Men, not as much.”

Hirsh Spence would like to see more Canadian employers include older adults in their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. “They really do bring a different perspective and yet we leave age off the table because of old-fashioned beliefs that we adhere to. There’s no expiry date on productivity.”

Ottawa has more well-educated healthy older adults than any other city in Canada, says Hirsh Spence. 

“We’re not taking advantage of that. It’s really being wasted. When you disenfranchise one of the largest growing populations in the world, you’re doing damage to yourself. Nobody is talking about ageism in Canada. Nobody.”