For the first time ever, there are now more people in the world over 65 years old than there are under five. More of us will live longer lives than our predecessors. As a consequence, more of us will be working to an older age than has traditionally been the norm before. This is our new reality, and it represents a monumental demographical shift - a shift that is going on before our very eyes. But, are we, as leaders, guilty of turning a blind eye?
I think it’s fair to say that most leaders haven’t yet fully woken up to the new reality we’re faced with. We are failing to appreciate the huge impact an ageing world will have on the organisations we lead, and the people who work in them. And, even if we do recognise this shift in demographics, most tend to still see an increasingly older workforce as a burden, not the great untapped opportunity that it is.
Clearly, for everyone’s sake, this must change. We must realise that this isn’t a passing fad, this is a deep-rooted and unstoppable change that will have massive implications on the world we all live and work in. It’s even been described as one of the biggest issues of our time facing the world of work. As Tony Wilson, of the Institute of Employment Studies says in this Financial Times article, “It’s this ageing of our workforce, much more than the future risks of automation, that policymakers and employers should focus on.”
Ageing is an issue for all of us, not just the ‘old’
So where to start? I believe that all of us, regardless of our age or seniority, need to embrace and celebrate getting older, rather than doing our best to ignore, avoid or deny it. Instead, we must start to explode some of the ‘myths’ I spoke about in my last blog, as exactly that, as ‘myths’. Let’s face it - regardless of what society or the media tells us, a higher chronological age is in no way an accurate predictor of skills, capabilities or ambition.
None of us have an expiry date stamped on our foreheads, and we don’t suddenly become null and void when we hit that exact date. In actual fact, as each year passes, we have more and more to give, but in different, equally valuable ways. Wisdom is something that is gained with time, just as experience is, and both are invaluable.
Our ageing world isn’t just an issue ‘older’ people should be grappling with, planning for, or trying to make sense of though. As Paul Irving, Chairman for the Center of Future of Aging at the Milken Institute quite rightly says, we all have additional time to use spread throughout our lives. So, if you think about it, younger people have as much, if not more of a stake in this than any other generation. As Professor Andrew Scott put it so eloquently, ‘the future old are the current young’. This issue isn’t going away, and it’s the responsibility of all of us to build a better, more inclusive world for the generations that will come after us.
I think challenging the pre-existing biases we all have in our own minds is the first, and most crucial step on the road to achieving the workplace transformation that must happen for our organisations to not just thrive, but to exist in the future. Only by positively re-framing our own personal perceptions of ageing, can we then make the fundamental changes desperately needed to help our ageing workforces enjoy productive, happy and fulfilled careers for many years to come.
Five ways we can help our ageing workforces have long, happy careers with us
So, what exactly can we as leaders do to make sure our increasingly ageing workforces are given what they need to have long, happy, fulfilled and productive careers with us? Here’s my view:
Bluntly, most organisations have designed their systems based on the assumption that there will be a natural exodus of staff when they retire, usually at a fixed age. This just isn’t the case anymore. In the UK, the default retirement age was legally scrapped years ago. Yet we still operate as though people will automatically leave around the same time, and establish our HR policies to reinforce that belief. So, we as leaders, need to make changes to the way we do things if we are going to handle this challenge well.
This is a topic we covered in our latest Hays Journal and I’d like to summarise some of the points the article makes, as well as add a few thoughts of my own:
- Provide the flexibility older workers may need: Flexibility isn’t just something older workers want, it’s what we all want. But it does seem to be particularly important to this demographic - according to Andrew Caplin, an economist at New York University, 60% of retirees say they’d go back to work if it was more flexible. As we grow older, the reasons behind our need for more flexibility undoubtedly change. For example, one in five older people care for an older dependent or relative, and some may be part of what’s called the ‘sandwich generation’ where they have children who are financially dependent on them, as well as responsibility for caring for an older relative. When I say you need to ‘provide the flexibility older workers may need’, I’m not just talking about allowing them to leave an hour earlier on a Friday. I’m talking about considering offering part-time roles, compressed hours, mid-career breaks, phased retirement, care days, even the option to switch from a permanent to a contract or temporary contract. Amanda Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Business in the Community suggests looking at job sharing options for older workers when women go off on maternity leave. For too many of our ‘older’ workers, work isn’t yet flexible enough to meet their personal needs, and that needs to change.
- Help older workers adjust and adapt their jobs to their skills and motivations: Older people, like all of us, want meaningful work, a sense of purpose and the opportunity to make a contribution to society. However, depending on the type of work they do, we as employers may need to help them make adjustments to their existing roles. For instance, how could we better utilise the empathy and balance that older workers often bring by shifting them from physically demanding roles to customer-facing ones? Or are there opportunities for your more experienced employees to share their wealth of knowledge in a mentorship or coaching role? Perhaps you could be facilitating more horizontal career moves, or even craft their existing roles to emphasise the features that are more personally meaningful to them, as suggested by Wong and Tetrick. Importantly, as explained in this Harvard University video, when adapting roles for older workers, it’s not just about ‘keeping them busy’ – the worker must feel psychologically connected and engaged in the tasks at hand.
- Invest in their skills and lifelong learning: According to Irving, training and reskilling tends to drop dramatically for the over-50’s. But mature employees, like all other generations, want and need to feel that the organisations they devote so much of their lives to are committed to investing in their continued development, no matter how old they are. Without that, as an employer you risk signalling to them that they are ‘too old’ to invest in. You are implicitly signalling that you don’t see the value in helping them get better at what they do, because they’ll probably retire soon. When deciding on how best to deliver the training, always remember that older people are just as diverse as any other segment of the population. So, a personalised, tailored learning approach will be most effective. For instance, reverse-mentoring might work for one person, but another may get more from classroom training. As with anything, and with any generation, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that can be easily rolled out to everyone.
- Build careers around individuals, not groups of individuals: Ambition and drive doesn’t magically disappear when you reach a certain age. To ensure the engagement and fulfilment of all, it’s important that career development and planning is encouraged across the entire workforce. Planning for the future and setting goals shouldn’t just be focused solely on those who potentially have more years ahead of them. As Jon Andrews, People and Organisation leader at PwC says, “I think what our clients need to be thinking about now, is about setting up their organisation so that it creates agility and their ability to build careers around individuals, rather than groups of individuals. Fundamentally, that’s going to take some time to shift, so putting things in place now will set them up for the future.” Also, the fact that our lives and thus our careers are getting longer would also suggest that future career paths and journeys will need to become far flatter, and longer than they are now. After all, if, at the age of 35 you’ve reached what you think is the pinnacle of your career, what on earth do you do for an encore? As Stuart Kirk, Head of Global Research at DWS, suggests, the elongation of our careers means that we need to become more patient when it comes to the expectations we have around our own career trajectories, and encourage our employees to be too.
- Create an age-positive culture: Research shows that 85 per cent of professionals globally believe that an age-diverse team is beneficial in generating more innovative ideas. Do you think this understanding is echoed in your organisation? As leaders, we must aim to be leading organisations in which the benefits of diversity are widely known, accepted and embraced, by everyone, of all ages. Younger managers shouldn’t feel threatened or concerned by the prospect of managing somebody who is older than they are, or that older people are ‘blocking their progression’ in some way. Everyone’s voices in the team should be heard, no matter how long that voice has been around for.
As you’ve read through the above points, you’ve probably been thinking to yourself, “this is all well and good, but surely, we should be making these changes for the benefit of every generation in our workforce, not just our older employees?” and you’d be right. I’m not saying that we should be treating our ‘older’ workers differently, as a collective whole; as Professor Andrew Scott says, “older people are just like anyone else – they’re heterogeneous.” What I am saying is that a consideration for all forms of diversity, including age, must be woven into the very fabric of how we run our businesses, so that each individual gets what they need to flourish. If we manage to do that, then we really will be future-proofing our businesses.
It is a fact that our workforces are ageing. We can’t press pause, we can’t rewind the demographics. This is our new reality and we must start to change things to adapt to this new world. If we don’t, we will be doing our organisations, and the people that work in them, a huge disservice. If we don’t adapt, we’ll watch on the side-lines while our talented, experienced, and knowledgeable workers, people who have been with us for years, walk out the door, and into the arms of those competitors with a better approach.
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About this author
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.
In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector ith over 6,000 people based in India.