We are heading for a demographic crunch. Life expectancy is increasing, birth rates are falling, fewer young people are joining the workforce, and our population is ageing.
Until recently, those over 65 have not exceeded 3% or 4% of the population. This is now 15%, and will reach 25% by 2050, and 40 percent in Japan, Korea, and Singapore. In the UK, the numbers of those aged 65 and over will rise from 28% of the labor force in 2015 to 35% in 2030; in Japan, this will be around 74% by 2050.
An ageing population will lead to labor and skill shortages. One response is to keep using the knowledge, skills, and experience of seniors by encouraging them to stay in the workforce. But this solution could run into the problem of age discrimination.
Claudio Ranieri, an experienced English Premiership football manager, was recently appointed to Watford Football club. This was surprising, because he is 70 years old.
Older workers are commonly seen as expensive, poor performers, less motivated, lacking technology skills, with a limited ability to learn, and resistant to change. In addition, younger employees may find it difficult to manage older, more battle-hardened colleagues. And seniors may resent being told what to do by inexperienced youngsters.
The strengths of seniors
However, for employers considering hiring and developing older workers, there is good news: seniors tend to be better than, or at least as good as youngsters in these areas:
- positive attitude to work
- engaged, committed, reliable, lower turnover
- ability to hit the ground running
- practical skills and knowledge
- experience, insights, judgement
- eager to share their expertise with and to mentor others
- highly networked and connected
- communication skills
- problem solving ability
- handling difficult situations
- understanding the needs of older customers and clients
- combining perspectives, encouraging innovation
- contributing to age-diverse teams.
Older employees can also help to address cybercrime. Norsk Hydro, a Norwegian metals and electricity company, was subject to a ransomware attack in 2019. Instead of shutting down production, veteran employees, whose careers began in a pre-digital age, switched to manual operation.
Younger employees at the company did not have the skills to do that.
And there is a pool of seniors who are able and willing to work, due to the popularity of unretirement: retiring, then coming back to full or part time work.
In the UK, around 25% of retirees return to work within five years. Motives vary: boredom, extra income, intellectual challenge, social contact, the desire to contribute.
The benefits of a multi-generational workforce
You can now find four or five generations working in the same organization. The age range of employees at the fast food chain McDonald’s in the UK is an incredible 75 years from 16 to 91. The different generations are believed to have different approaches to work.
- Boomers are said to want flexibility and autonomy.
- Gen X are ambitious, socially confident, and drivers of change.
- Gen Y resist micromanagement, and want flexibility, work-life balance, and a sense of purpose.
- Gen Z want freedom of expression, reject hierarchy, enjoy teamwork, and prefer to use their own technology at work rather than corporate systems.
But most of those expectations of work are generic. Generational differences can be overplayed, and differences between individuals could be as important. In particular, having many generations in the same workforce has benefits.
Research by McDonald’s UK found that employees in age-diverse teams had higher job satisfaction and performed better. McDonald’s surveyed 32,000 staff, and found that multi-generational teams were 10% happier than those working in their peer group.
A survey of 1,000 McDonald’s customers found that over 80% liked to see a mix of ages in a restaurant team, because it improved the atmosphere.
Older workers delivered better service, and mentored younger staff. Levels of customer service were 20% higher in restaurants with staff aged 60 and over.
Who’s doing what?
Here’s how some organizations are successfully engaging older employees.
The bank set up a Bolder Apprenticeships scheme for those wishing to change careers. This gives seniors a chance to retrain and learn new skills, irrespective of their age.
Jaguar Land Rover
The company has designed a Retirement Transitions initiative which helps people prepare for later life, featuring financial planning, well-being, health and fitness, and lifelong learning. It also gives a small annual allowance to allow staff to pursue a meaningful activity, which can be used to support work-life balance in a flexible way.
Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson have initiated health prevention on a wide scale. For example, all employees have access to a full health check every two years. Creating a healthy working environment and health and well-being monitoring are aspects. Employees can join health programs such as sport, massage and health and well-being advice, flu vaccinations, cholesterol testing and weight watching, plus flexible work options.
The HR/L&D agenda
There is, therefore, a compelling business case for employing older workers and this has profound implications for HR professionals.
Flexible working policy
The importance of setting out and adopting a flexible working policy should be high on the HR agenda, perhaps now easier with changes in working practice triggered by the pandemic.
For older workers, flexibility is important, to allow them to care for elderly parents and grandchildren, and to manage their own health.
Offering greater flexibility, autonomy, and skills updating encourages seniors to stay employed and contribute for longer.
L&D policies and practices
Older workers find it difficult to learn new skills? Nonsense; this is one of the first things that many people do when they retire.
Older workers have weak IT skills? Also nonsense; we know many seniors whose IT capabilities are as as good as if not better than that of their juniors (although they may avoid social networks and computer games).
The evidence suggests, however, that older employees miss out on training and development. This deprives the organization of their capabilities, experience, and potential.
Then there is a training need for younger managers. Some of them may find that they are managing people the same age as their grandparents – and who have greater knowledge and experience than they do of the business. This can become an uncomfortable situation for both parties. Some simple guidance can help to make this relationship work well:
- Be open about the age and experience difference, and treat this as a benefit.
- Draw on the experience and judgement of seniors when appropriate.
- Assign older staff to projects where they have a good understanding of the issues.
- Organize knowledge-sharing meetings.
- Use seniors’ mentoring capabilities to support and train younger staff.
Line managers may benefit from anti-discrimination briefing, and from learning how to recognize and accommodate the diverse needs and preferences of the different generations in their teams.
Research has shown that work design that emphasizes autonomy, feedback, complexity, and social contact can be engaging and mentally stimulating – helping older employees in particular to stay sharp.
- encourage flexible working
- target potential candidates across all the age ranges
- ensure accessibility through health support
- provide development opportunities for all ages
- create an age-positive culture, with senior support, an age champion, and visible role models
The Centre for Ageing Better, in collaboration with other agencies, also encourages organizations to remove bias from recruitment and selection processes:
- age should be part of your diversity and inclusion policy
- capture and use age-related data from the recruitment process
- remove bias from job adverts, using language that appeals to older workers
- redesign interview processes with multiple decision-makers and pre-defined questions
- hold workshops to build awareness, reduce bias, and avoid discrimination.
Those workshops can help to ‘oil the wheels’ of day-to-day working in other ways. Turn these into knowledge-sharing meetings. Be open about differences in age and experience, and treat these as benefits.
Draw on the knowledge and judgement of seniors when appropriate. Assign seniors to projects where they have a good understanding of the issues. Use the mentoring capabilities of seniors to support and train younger colleagues.
From problem to opportunity
Do you see an ageing, mutigenerational workforce as a problem? Try seeing this instead as an opportunity – indeed, a range of opportunities – to create a more diverse, engaged, motivated, and productive workforce.
Sign up to the UNLEASH Newsletter
Get the Editor’s picks of the week delivered straight to your inbox!