Career development for employees heading into their 'second middle age'

Continuous learning enhances job performance and generates confidence in older workers

This is the first of a two-part series on older employees. Part two, Are you ready to tap older workers’ talents?, looks at the need for workforce recruitment and retention strategies that target older workers.

How does your organization view the career potential of employees who are in their mid to late 50s?

Is there an assumption that they are on the downhill stretch to retirement? Are they seen as blocking up-and-coming employees? Are they passed over for positions where there will be a steep learning curve? Are scarce development dollars spent on younger employees rather than on them? If so, you may be discouraging people who could form a very valuable talent pool.

If an employer doesn’t pay attention to the career development of staff as they approach age 60, it won’t have the benefit of their productivity during their second middle age.

The “second middle age” is a term coined by Helen Harkness in her book, Don’t Stop the Career Clock. It refers to the 20-year period when an individual is between ages 60 and 80. It ought to be viewed as a time of potential and valuable contribution rather than “the retirement years” or worse, “old age.”

Here are practical career development strategies that will help keep employees fully engaged during their second middle age.

Adopting a new attitude

Discard the stereotypes. Older workers are not necessarily closed-minded, reluctant to embrace change, risk averse and focused on the past. Their views are grounded in years of hard-earned experience and many of them are open-minded, flexible, willing to take calculated risks and forward-thinking.

•While employees are in their 50s, begin working with them to plan for future roles rather than assuming they will soon retire. Engage in positive career development conversations before frustration or burn-out sets in.

•Treat agism with the same disdain given to other prejudices.

•Create a culture where people at all levels regularly rotate through roles to reduce the occurrence of older employees blocking younger workers.

•Rely on experienced employees to save the organization from repeating mistakes by engaging them as trouble-shooters or internal auditors.

•Think creatively about offering them lateral moves, international assignments, mentoring opportunities or internal coaching roles.

•Establish key account relationship roles or second older employees to external charitable endeavours as ambassadors for the organization.

Providing career counselling

People want to do work that interests them, takes advantage of their knowledge, honours their values and uses their key skills. These factors change for the individual over time, and often a person’s career path takes her away from the work she truly enjoys. Returning to an earlier role could be rejuvenating in second middle age or it might be feasible to launch into a completely new endeavour as an alternative to retirement. To help employees stay on a productive career track, it is crucial to provide good career counselling.

•Include career development conversations as a mandatory part of regular performance appraisals.

•Train managers to conduct purposeful career management conversations and provide tools to assist employees with managing their own careers.

•Offer seminars or engage independent consultants to work one-on-one with employees looking for a new role.

Investing in training and development

Recent research debunks the myth of the inevitable decline of mental ability with age. While slower processing and some memory loss are typical of aging, these are not necessarily signs of diminishing capacity in primary mental functions such as verbal meaning, spatial orientation, inductive reasoning, numerical ability or word fluency. These important mental competencies can remain intact well into someone’s 90s in the absence of illness, making second middle agers worthy candidates for training and development. It is easy to compensate for a slower mental pace and occasional memory lapse when intellectual capability is respected.

•Accommodate the older learner’s physical needs in the classroom. Supply good lighting and easy-to-read visual aids. Reduce background noise and have trainers use microphones.

•Match educational opportunities to career planning goals. For older employees, new learning needs to be focused and practical.

•Provide participative learning opportunities to capitalize on the experiences of older students. They have a strong ability to integrate new concepts with existing knowledge.

•Believe in the “use it or lose it” adage. Continuous learning enhances job performance and generates confidence in an employee’s ability to make a valuable contribution to the organization.

Honouring the need for work-life balance

After decades of commuting, working long hours and taking short holidays, many people look forward to retirement as a welcome break from the unrelenting routine. The prospect of sleeping in seven days a week, taking an extended trip or spending the winter in Florida can have a lot of appeal. Creative work arrangements could offer some of these perks to second middle agers.

•Include an analysis of work-life balance in career counselling sessions. Trying to find the right balance of work, leisure and volunteer activities is challenging and requires regular review.

•Offer the opportunity to take sabbaticals. This would allow second middle agers to take extended time off without having to retire permanently.

•Use non-standard employment options. Employees in second middle age might do contract work, take consulting assignments or work on a part-time or seasonal basis.

•Offer phased-in retirement where the hours of work are reduced and income is supplemented by tapping into pensions.

The demographics are well-documented. In 1991, only 29 per cent of Canada’s working-age population was between ages 45 and 64. By 2015, that percentage is projected to swell to 48 per cent. The workforce will shrink dramatically if all baby boomers retire permanently. This makes the retention of second middle agers an HR imperative.

Second middle age employees could be organizational gold. Research has shown they have lower rates of absenteeism, fewer accidents, higher levels of job satisfaction and possess a stronger work ethic. Why wouldn’t employers encourage them to develop their careers and remain productive in the workforce as long as possible?

Marge Watters is the author of It’s Your Move, and a founder of KWA Partners, a national career management services firm. She can be reached at [email protected].


Show them you care
Offer financial planning assistance


As people approach traditional retirement age, career decisions are often inextricably linked to the individual’s comfort with their financial position. Provide financial planning assistance well before retirement is imminent.

•Educate employees about the company pension plan, group RRSPs, stock options, employee savings plans and any other programs that are in place.

•Provide financial planning seminars given by independent, qualified individuals who are not selling investment products or insurance. These seminars should include opportunities for participants to analyze the cost of their lifestyles, quantify their financial responsibilities including debts and dependents, evaluate their risk tolerance for unpredictable expenses such as medical bills and consider their intentions about leaving money for their heirs.

•Follow the seminars with opportunities for individual consultation so that each employee can determine the amount of income they will need to earn in their second middle age to provide for permanent retirement.


Evaluating atypical candidates
10 steps to the right fit

For a company’s recruitment expert, it’s important to stay on top of innovative practices and not to fall into the trap of considering only resumés from conventional candidates. To assist in the evaluation of atypical candidates, here are some tips:

•If you’re not familiar with the industry or type of work outlined in a resumé, conduct some research to broaden your understanding of the skills presented and to better determine their transferability. Don’t make the excuse you’re too busy — ¬taking the time to learn now will provide you with a competitive edge as the recruitment market tightens.

•Begin interviews by asking individuals to tell their work history in a chronological order, including how it transpired. Investigate any inconsistencies or areas of concern to ensure you are satisfied with the narrative. For example, if there are gaps in experience, explore why and how they have been managed, and find out whether there are valid reasons behind them or if they are indicative of someone with a serious attitude ¬problem.

•Determine the individual’s core competencies, how they align with the job and the organizational profile.

•Drill down to uncover specifics that enable the evaluation of someone’s candidacy against stated selection criteria. If “relationship management” is a key criterion, then delve into the person’s qualifications in this area and follow up with references to validate the information gathered through the interview.

•Probe to get a clear sense about their vision for successfully navigating or delivering in the position.

•Make every effort to ascertain their true motivation for assuming this new path and find out if the candidate is running away from or toward an opportunity.

•Ask questions that enable you to assess whether someone can make the shift both successfully and happily into a “T-4 person.”

•Consider using a reliable assessment tool that will measure the individual’s behaviour against the organizational and job profile.

•Employ the services of a qualified professional career coach to conduct an in-depth analysis of the individual’s competencies, attributes and values.

•Take the time to confirm references. Perform background checks — for credit, criminal history, and education — and carry out a full 360-degree reference check to validate key data.

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