As people live and work longer, a four-generation workforce — where staff in their 70s and 80s will work alongside those in their 20s — is becoming a reality. But, too often, the focus of HR and managers is on the younger generations — educating and developing them to reach their full potential — while ignoring the other end of the spectrum, according to a report from Ashridge Executive Education in the United Kingdom.
There needs to be a focus on the “lost generation” of the over-50s, said the authors of Don’t Put Baby (Boomers) in the Corner, to keep them engaged, giving them fulfilling and sustainable employment, and using their skills and experience for the benefit of the economy.
When older workers were asked what work gives them — so what they would miss if they were not working — the top selection was “mental stimulation” (63 per cent), found Ashridge’s survey of 1,834 people in the U.K., including 1,426 aged 50 and older and 408 HR staff. That was followed by fulfillment (59 per cent), a sense of purpose (49 per cent) and pride (46 per cent).
Not surprisingly, “financial reward” (45 per cent) was in the top five, followed by working relationships (44 per cent), the development of others (40 per cent) and self-development (36 per cent).
It’s clear that for the majority of the over 50s, being at work is satisfying intrinsic needs, said the report, though within the HR community, there has been a strong focus on retirement planning and managing physical and mental limitations as people age.
People are retiring later, that’s becoming accepted, but there’s more an assumption the older workers have disappeared into a black hole somewhere, said Sue Honoré, associate research consultant at Ashridge Executive Education of the Holt International Business School.
“It’s no good having disengaged, unmotivated people just sitting doing their time when the vast majority of them have the capability to be highly motivated. That’s not to say everybody does, but… it’s just a bit worrying that this whole population is being ignored.”
We live in a youth-oriented culture, said Suzanne Cook, Toronto-based adjunct professor at the Faculty of Health at York University and faculty fellow at the Trent Centre for Aging & Society at Trent University.
“We are obviously very concerned about the next generation and their growth and development, and we forget that all ages and stages are growing and developing, and there’s still lots of power and potential in later life among older workers.”
Older people still want to develop, to change, to do new things and be stimulated, said Honoré, who is also co-author of the report.
“There’s an assumption that… a certain age means a certain level in the organization and once you’ve achieved that level, then you’re fine — as long as you’re doing well, you’re performing, who cares? And this is really what is frustrating people is that a lot of them would like to do a lot more development, a lot of them would like to do new things, but the focus is all ‘Let’s bring the young people on, how can we develop them, how can we make them grow quickly, how can we get them very capable?’ and then just ignoring the older people,” she said.
“And (it’s) also ignoring the fact that the older people have that knowledge and experience that would help the young people to grow quicker — but two and two are not being put together.”
It’s important to educate people, said Cook.
“Showing the benefits and the positive aspects of having older workers in the workplace is going to be important going forward…. It’s not just about the paycheque, it’s about the mental stimulation, the social stimulation, feeling pride in your accomplishments at work and having purposeful and meaningful work — that is important.”
As employees work past conventional retirement age, it’s important to keep their skills up to date. However, when it comes to training and development opportunities, HR and older employees are not exactly aligned, found Ashridge.
When asked to list the top T&D needs of people in the over-50s, both HR and baby boomers cited technology (25 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively) as number one. However, the second choice for HR was retirement planning (17 per cent) while baby boomers picked “coaching and mentoring” (14 per cent). That was third on the list for HR while “leadership and management” was third for baby boomers.
The latter was fourth for HR compared to retirement planning for baby boomers, with change management fifth for HR, compared to career development for baby boomers.
“It’s the sort of attitude that ‘Let’s do something practical and something that we can measure,’” said Honoré. “Organizations are very much into ‘Let’s talk about retirement planning and financial planning,’ and the individuals are… not sure about how they’re going to cope, worried that if they stay on at work and they mention the retirement word, that suddenly they’ll be locked in, they’ll have to go on that date and people will start ignoring them in terms of any development or getting involved in work.’”
Older workers were also asked about any skills or talents that were not being used fully by their employers, with developing others (33 per cent) coming out on top, followed closely by strategic skills (32 per cent). Facilitation or bridging skills (19 per cent) and business skills (11 per cent) bottomed out the list.
When it comes to strategic thinking, it’s about areas such as critical thinking, problem-solving and leadership, said Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Vir., which has launched an Aging Workforce Research Initiative.
“Leadership issues seem to stand out there and if the older demographic seem to have some strength there, then that can be one way to leverage that demographic as well, and not just having leadership opportunities but also there’s things like mentoring… (so) how to pass down that knowledge through having the generations work together and how to have the different generations helping each other learn.”
There’s a feeling among older workers that they aren’t being motivated, they aren’t being used to their best ability, said Honoré.
“They really do feel they want to do something,” she said. “It’s that real desire to feel ‘I’m doing something fantastic and feel good about what I’m doing.’”
When it comes to solutions, Ashridge cited key areas to consider including: looking for sideways moves or projects or activities that could motivate baby boomers and use their skills; finding ways to share knowledge, such as coaching and mentoring; showcasing older workers who role-model career moves; and finding ways to use their specialized skills accumulated through experience, such as people skills, relationship management and project risk factors.
“A lot of the people recognize that some of their skills are outdated but it doesn’t mean they don’t have that decision-making capability or that analysis capability in their brain that they can use to adapt it to new situations,” said Honoré. “The older person provides that understanding of corporate policy and decision-making and experience and the younger person may provide skills in IT or in communicating with the world when you don’t know the people.”
Sodexo looks to older workers
To take advantage of the experience and expertise of older workers, quality of life services company Sodexo created “Right Start” teams for when the company opens a new account. The first three to six months can be really tough in getting to know the client, figuring out services and hiring new staff, said Katherine Power, vice-president of communications and corporate affairs at Sodexo in Burlington, Ont.
It’s not a good idea to put a new manager into that high-stress situation. You need someone who’s very seasoned, she said.
“They get everything going, they set it up right, they build the relationship with the client, they make sure the start is smooth and then, once everything is running, then you bring in the younger manager who can lead it full-time going forward,” said Power.
“People really enjoy that opportunity because it’s really pulling on their expertise, it’s a short-term opportunity, they get to bounce around a little bit, they might move around from place to place, temporarily, and it’s a different… type of experience for them but they’re not dealing with the pressures of managing a big team and all the people stuff that goes along with that or working the crazy long hours.”
HR should also review training to ensure older workers are allowed to progress, said the Ashridge report.
That’s a perception that needs to change, that training dollars are only well-spent if they’re spent on younger workers, said Schramm.
“That’s a fallacy, obviously — workers at all stages benefit from training and sometimes there’s a good case that you’re more likely to see that return on investment with the older worker demographic because the turnover rate may be lower.”
Mature and experienced workers have a lot to bring to the workplace and want to be challenged, said Cook, “so that’s why we need to rethink the way that we do work and provide opportunities and provide challenges to keep them engaged, to keep them motivated, so we need to be thinking about T&D for mature workers.”
At Sodexo, which has 10,000 employees in Canada, training is really not based on age, said Power.
“It’s based on your role, so it’s not discriminatory in that way… it’s really much more role-specific than it is anything else, and that ensures everybody gets those opportunities, whether you’re a visible minority, older worker, woman.”
But there is a sensitivity in older workers, particularly senior ones, to not be seen as stupid, said Honoré.
“This one-size-fits-all (approach) is great to a certain extent but, in general, a lot of the more senior people — if they’re learning things that would seem basic to young people — wouldn’t want to be in a course with them, they would want to have one-on-one training or something where it was a group of peers. There’s an awful lot about status and psychology behind that.”
The report also recommended employers make a point to listen to what older workers want and build up a culture of trust where discussions on career do not lead to an assumption a person is “on the road to retirement.” It’s about treating people individually, said Honoré.
“You can have somebody who’s work-shy and does the minimum and they can be any age, and you have somebody who’s exactly the same age and they’re the most driven person in the world. If you don’t treat them as individuals, you won’t achieve anything.”