The hospitality sector employs a much younger workforce than the average: 33% of employees are aged under 25, compared with 12% of the UK’s employees as an average across all sectors. This proportion jumps to 66% for waiting staff and 60% for bar staff.
Demographic changes to UK society mean that there will be a significant decline in the number of younger workers. By 2021 the 15-24 age group will have fallen by 16%. There will be a decline in the number of workers aged 35-44, too – the main ‘management’ cohort and there will be a large increase (25%) in the number of 50 to 60+ year olds, both as potential customers ( the ‘grey’ market) and employees.
Recently, the need to employ a higher number of older workers has been a difficult message to get across because so much emphasis in the public conversation has been placed on tackling youth unemployment. Now that youth unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in six years, arguably the case for age diversity is back on the agenda once again.
In terms of the business benefits of employing a more balanced mix of age groups, some evidence exists that age diversity can result in higher profit margins. McDonald’s conducted a study with Lancaster University that looked at metrics including sales, footfall and customer experience. Restaurant units with the broadest age profile were found to be the most profitable. If the age profiles of the most profitable units had been replicated throughout the business, the wage bill would have increased by 11% but the increased profit would have easily outstripped this additional cost.
There are a number of reasons which are often cited as natural barriers to our industry employing a better mix of age groups. The need to keep wage costs down is one. Historically, ours is a minimum wage industry and therefore its business model is skewed towards younger workers. Employing older workers is more expensive.
Secondly, the long hours and often physically demanding nature of many hospitality roles make them unsuitable for older employees.
Thirdly, the UK is not culturally very good at mixing and communicating across generations. Heads of department may feel uncomfortable interviewing or managing someone older and with more experience than them.
Of course, it is easy for us to see some truth in all of the above, but at the same time, the demographic changes now underway mean that hotel leaders and managers should be looking to overcome and challenge these assumptions. For example, if we compared the average age of waiters in Paris and Rome with those in London or Edinburgh, we’d probably find it is higher. Are their jobs less physically demanding?
Yet our recruitment and retention problems cannot be simply resolved by employing a greater number of older workers. There are actually some areas of our industry – housekeeping, for example – where there is a real need to attract more young people.
As our population gets gradually older, the hope must be that ageism, in all its forms, becomes more unacceptable.
By PETER DUCKER, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality