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.”
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.
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:
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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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.
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