Are you making the most of your older workers?

Employers are ‘sleep-walking’ towards a significant skills problem by ignoring the value of older workers, says a recent report from the CIPD. It’s just the latest in a series of warnings to the business world about why hanging on to experienced staff is more important than ever before.

Government figures suggest that an estimated 13.5 million jobs will be created in the UK over the next 10 years – but there will only be around seven million young people available to fill these roles, even when taking into consideration.

The abolition of the default retirement age, changes to pensions legislation, and a general increase in life expectancy means over 50s are likely to stay in employment much longer than before. Yet according to a recent guide from the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) and Ashridge Business School, this valuable pool of talent is being overlooked by employers, thanks to ingrained, negative attitudes towards older workers.

There are proven business benefits to be had from hiring and keeping hold of older workers. A recent report from TalentSmoothie points out that more mature staff generally stay longer, provide better customer service and can have a real impact on the bottom line. Research from Cezanne HR also shows that older (and more conscientious) employees are much less likely than their younger counterparts to ‘throw a sickie’.

It’s clear that if organisations want to avoid the risk of being outbid in the battle to recruit from a smaller pool of younger talent, they need to look to the older generation for stability. So what actions can you as a business take to adapt to the changing workforce demographics and realise the potential of valuable older workers?

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Org chart - age

Understand the generational make-up of your workforce

How much do you actually know about the make-up of your workforce? When do you expect some of your business critical talent to retire, for example? Are some of your older workers in skills-shortage areas that will be hard to replace? The latest HR tech, including HR software systems from Cezanne HR, include workforce analytics and org charts with breakdown by age, which can help you to answer these questions. It’s also worth taking a look at the above-mentioned Talentsmoothie report, entitled ‘The Aging Workforce: What’s your strategy?’, which includes a useful diagnostic tool that can help you to better understand the demographics of your people.

Talk openly about retirement

Companies are often reluctant to have open discussions about retirement with their people for fear of opening themselves up to claims of discrimination. But the truth is that older workers often want, need, and indeed now have the right to work longer. Open and constructive conversations will help you find out what your more mature workers want, and how you can make the most of their talents. The Talentsmoothie report recommends adopting a new ‘extended’ career stage, which sits between the end of full-time employment and retirement. If properly managed and supported by flexible policies, this will help you benefit from the skills of more mature workers over a longer time-frame.

Value experience more highly

Experience is often invisible until it is lost to the business when someone retires or leaves, taking valuable corporate memory and knowledge with them. It is also often ignored or not recognised as a critical tool. It’s typical to find in a business, for example, that managers are not rewarded as highly for passing on experience (if at all) as they are for hitting their targets. The ILM/Ashridge guide recommends making ‘sharing experience’ a significant part of the way performance is measured. Creating both formal and informal opportunities for older workers to share their knowledge can be helpful.

Challenge outdated attitudes and language

Negative perceptions of the over 50s among younger employees and leadership teams are one of the biggest barriers to more mature workers fulfilling their potential. Make sure you challenge these outdated attitudes. Encourage use of new terminology – replacing the word ‘old’ with ‘experienced’ for example, and avoid language that only associates talent and aspiration with youth. You could also highlight your ‘experienced’ workforce as a positive feature in your external communication.

Invest in training and development

Age doesn’t stop people from learning new skills, and indeed many more mature workers have a real thirst for continually learning and developing. Don’t assume that over 50s are all technophobes – it won’t necessarily take them longer than their younger colleagues to learn something new. Steer away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ training, which may be frustrating and irrelevant for more experienced employees. Coaching, action learning, and reverse mentoring are all learning approaches which can work successfully with more mature workers.

Find out what’s important to your older workers

Do you really know what your older workers value and what they want from their careers? In addition to having discussions about their options and being offered a phased approach to retirement, feeling appreciated and being considered for roles where they can continue to make a contribution also score highly, research shows. A flexible approach, the option to sometimes work from home and longer holidays also made the list of what’s important to more experienced workers. When asked what keeps them motivated and engaged, older workers often mention being respected, feeling as if they are using their strengths, and having their ideas listened to by colleagues and managers.

Facilitate cross-generational working

We are now in a four-generation workforce – which brings both challenges and opportunities. If you’re lucky enough to have a mixed bag of employees age-wise, it can offer you diversity of thought and often, a better reflection of your customer base. On the other hand, different generations often have different priorities and ways of working, which can lead to conflict and frustration. Train managers in how to manage generational diversity, set up cross generational mentoring, and find ways for older and younger workers to share skills and experience. Brown bag lunches/seminars, knowledge sharing sessions, and internal networking events can all help the generations pass on knowledge and understand each other better.

Make flexibility available to everyone

Flexible working arrangements are not just for those with family or caring responsibilities. People at all ages and stages of their careers want flexibility for a whole host of reasons. Make sure you talk about flexible working in a way that makes it clear it is open to all and that the business sees it as an important contribution to employee health and well-being. Get senior managers on board by helping them understand the benefits flexible working can bring, from better use of office space to improved customer service and more engaged, motivated and productive employees.

One action to take this week: Find out what proportion of your workforce is made up of over-50s? Ask yourself if you are on the cliff-edge of a talent shortage?


The Ageing Workforce: What’s your strategy?:

Avoiding the Demographic Crunch: labour supply and the ageing workforce, CIPD:

Attract, Grow, Engage: Optimising the talents of an age-diverse workforce, ILM/Ashridge:

You may be interested in reading: The looming skills shortage – what should HR do?

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