Why your business can’t afford to ignore older workers

I recently interviewed a group of employees in their 50s and 60s about their experiences of work. The stories they told painted a grim picture of what it’s like to be a ‘Baby Boomer’ at work.

Passed over for promotion or plum projects. Dismissed as being a ‘dinosaur’, incapable of keeping up with the latest trends. Overlooked when it comes to training and development. Feeling excluded in a workplace full of younger colleagues who seem disinterested in getting to know them.

It’s bad news for the individuals concerned – but it’s also bad news for employers. Despite all the hype about Artificial Intelligence and robots coming to take over our jobs, UK plc is still predicted to face a shortage of labour in the years ahead. Skills gaps are already being felt, with sectors such as health, social care, education and manufacturing under particular pressure.

Value older workers illustration

Make no mistake, employers need older workers – and if they want to attract and keep hold of this valuable, experienced talent pool, HR practitioners need to look closely at how they can make policies and processes more inclusive and what they can do to make the workplace a more ‘friendly’ environment.

1. Avoid making assumptions

Researchers like to categorise workers as being ‘Millennials’, ‘Generation X’ or ‘Baby Booers’. But being part of a generation, doesn’t necessarily mean conforming to its stereotypes. I have recently worked with a colleague in his 60s, who had more energy, enthusiasm and innovative ideas than any of his younger counterparts. Yet there’s an underlying assumption that anyone who is 50 plus is not going to be tech-savvy. That they will be slow to pick up new systems. That they will be resistant to change and unable to embrace new ways of doing things. Managers need to be encouraged to treat people as individuals, to step back from their unconscious biases about older workers and to look at how best they can maximise their strengths and talents within the team. Making a conscious effort to build an environment where social ties are strong, and everyone is valued for their contribution is also key.

2. Take a fresh look at career development

It’s also wrong to assume that older workers are on a slow path to retirement, sitting it out and coasting along until it’s time to leave. Although there may of course be some who do take that stance, there are plenty of over-50s who are still driven, ambitious and regard themselves as far from finished. HR needs to investigate new models of career management, that consider the differing aspirations and capabilities of older workers. The Centre for Aging Better has been piloting the concept of a ‘Career MOT’ at 50, which rather than simply focusing on retirement, takes a holistic look at work, wealth and wellbeing. Trials in a selected few large organisations have gone well, although if the concept is to be scaled up, it will need both funding and employer support.

3. Embrace flexibility

In its recent report ‘Aging Gracefully: The Opportunities of an Older Workforce’, the CIPD highlights the importance of embracing flexible working. Baby Boomer workers may well need to juggle work with caring responsibilities, often finding themselves responsible for both elderly parents and older but still dependent children. Like any other generation, they may also want to work more flexibly in order to pursue a side-hustle business, or develop new skills or leisure interests. Some may want to downshift and work reduced hours in later working life. It is widely accepted that a transition into retirement is better for overall wellbeing than a sudden cut-off. Again, the key is to have the conversation and find a flexible solution that works for both the individual and the organisation.

4. Rethink job design

HR also has a role to play in looking at how jobs are designed and helping the organisation see that there are opportunities beyond the conventional job role. Older workers often want a different kind of role as they progress into later stages of their career. While some are still hungry for the big bucks and the big responsibilities, others may feel their talents are better used in more of a consultancy role. Research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education found that Baby Boomer workers were often keen to take on more of a mentoring role, for example, or to act as advisers on projects where they had a wealth of experience to bring. The challenge is to shift mindsets and help the business explore how it can make best use of the talents of its older workers.

5. Build multi-generational management capability

There’s no doubt that managing across the generations brings challenges as well as opportunities. Already, we are seeing an increasing number of teams in the workplace comprised of three, maybe even four generations, all of whom have very different desires and expectations around work and the way they want to be led and managed.

Younger managers may be apprehensive about how to lead older and often more experienced colleagues, for example. Team leaders may need help with managing conflict between colleagues, who might have very different values and ways of approaching work (although that of course isn’t necessarily a generational issue). Line managers may also need support in how to manage flexible teams and build cohesion among their people. HR needs to look at how it can best support managers charged with leading these multi-generational teams – whether that is through formal training designed to take their people skills up a gear or coaching to help them maximise the potential of all their people.

The growing number of older workers going into self-employment suggests that organisations are failing to meet the needs of the Baby Boomer generation. Employers need to act fast to find ways of making the workplace more welcoming and inclusive – or risk losing out on a wealth of talent and experience that could support their businesses going into the future.

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