Older workers play an important part in the country’s economy, with the over-50 age group predicted to represent one third of the UK workforce by 2020. Maximising the potential of this ‘Baby Boomer’ generation – many of whom may still work for 20 years – is vital for businesses who want to thrive and grow – but recent research from Ashridge Executive Education suggests companies don’t always know how to exploit their full potential.

The report ‘Don’t put Baby (Boomers) in the Corner: Realising the Potential of the Over 50s at Work’ shows that older workers are still ambitious, want challenging jobs, and are hungry for continued growth and career development. However, this is not always recognised by HR and senior leaders who often ‘overlook’ older workers when it comes to training, focusing instead on putting them on a slow path to retirement.

So what can companies do to keep their older workers motivated and engaged and ensure they are using the full range of their skills and expertise for the benefit of the business?

1. Take an individual approach to career development

Many of the older workers surveyed said they would welcome a shift away from formal, standardised ‘retirement planning’ conversations and towards more informal and individual dialogue. There was a fear that retirement conversations would lead to a ‘dead end’, whereas in fact many older workers were keen to discuss how they could develop in a new direction, take on an ambitious new role or plan for a portfolio career. As one interviewee said: “It would be good to see a shift in perceptions so that employers don’t write people off as soon as they hit that magic 50 number. 50 nowadays is not ‘old’ in the way it used to be.”

2. Find ways to share knowledge across the generations

One of them most surprising findings to come out of the survey was that the majority of individuals and HR professionals said their business was doing absolutely nothing to share knowledge and experience between the different generations in the workforce. The few organisations who were making efforts in this area cited networking events, job swaps/job shadowing or special projects at work as the most successful initiatives. Other ideas to help older workers share their wealth of experience included setting up knowledge databases, lunchtime and after work ‘learning’ sessions or sponsored projects, such as charity work. Failure to capture the valuable knowledge of older workers is a huge, wasted opportunity – as one respondent says, if no effort is made to do this “the knowledge just walks out of the door”.

3. Let older workers use their strategic skills

The Ashridge survey overturned the commonly held misconception that Baby Boomers are ‘hanging on’ to senior roles and blocking the next generation of talent coming through. In fact, the research showed that many are keen to step out of their operational roles and find new and different ways of putting the strategic and relationship skills they have developed over the years to good use. Advisory roles, non-executive director opportunities and special projects are among the ways businesses could make full use of the wealth of experience older workers have to offer.

4. Offer a wider range of training and development

Training was a key area where HR and the over 50s were really out of step. Demographic changes and the abolition of the default retirement age mean that many employees will both want and need to work much longer than ever before. If these older workers are to continue to make a meaningful contribution to the companies they work for, it’s more important than ever that they keep their skills up-to-date. The research showed, however, that companies are focusing much more on developing the skills of younger workers, with Baby Boomers often struggling to get a look in. IT skills, coaching and mentoring and development to help them move into new roles were areas where older workers particularly wanted training – although it is important to recognise that not all over-50s are technophobes and many already have well developed IT skills or are keen to learn more.

5. Ask Baby Boomers to act as coaches and mentors

The research showed that older workers are keen to ‘leave a legacy’ – and engaging them as coaches and mentors is a great way to fulfil this need, while also passing on valuable skills and knowledge to younger workers. Not all managers or senior employees make natural coaches, so it’s important for companies to provide training and development in this area. Some of the companies included in the survey had also found reverse mentoring (where younger employees mentor more seasoned colleagues) to be an effective way of sharing skills across the business.

Making efforts to maximise the potential of older workers can pay real dividends for companies – not just in terms of improved capability and productivity, but also in the way they are perceived by customers and clients. “The findings are a real wake-up call for organisations to think about how valued their older workers feel and are portrayed both in and outside the business,” said report co-author Dr Carina Paine-Schofield.

“Baby boomers are often in senior positions and are role models for others in the business. If they are not stimulated and engaged at work, the knock-on effect on the motivation levels of others could be enormous. Organisations also need to think about how the way they perceive and manage older workers impacts on recruitment and their brand image as an employer.”

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.