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Redesigning work for our ageing workforce

Jan 02. 2019
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TODAY’S fastest-growing workforce segment is taking organisations by storm – demanding flexibility, equal opportunity and better access to training and development. And no, we are not talking about millennials.

We are talking about employees working well into their 70s, forging their way into uncharted territory and redefining what it means to be an ageing worker.

The current number, and rapid increase, of people remaining in the workplace well past the traditional retirement age is unprecedented. Over the past two centuries the life expectancy has increased by about three years for every decade, according to the authors of “The 100-Year Life”, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. This is pushing many to extend their working years.

The trend is tilting overall workforce demographics toward the high end of the age spectrum, and the impacts of the ageing workforce can already be seen at the individual, organisational, and societal level.

Some leaders, attuned to attracting and retaining top talent regardless of age, are actively redesigning their workplaces to accommodate the diversity of needs across a five-generation workplace. But many other organisations remain dramatically underprepared for this large shift. 

Why would a business pursue older workers? What are the potential benefits to workplace culture and the bottom line? It turns out, there are many.

Engagement increases with age: Engagement levels tend to increase with age, likely because older workers have had the time to find roles that suit their skills and career preferences. The data shows that compared to other generations, baby boomers tend to persist longer and have more engagement in their work. 

Traditionalists (born prior to 1945) still in the workforce have the highest levels of engagement, but baby boomers seem to be closing that gap as the years go by. Fairly consistently across studies, millennials tend to show the lowest engagement levels. This may be no surprise, as many younger workers are not yet in their preferred roles and are still working their way through entry-level or lower-management-level roles.

Just how important is engagement? According to a 2016 Gallup study, highly engaged workers typically perform twice as well as those who are disengaged across a range of metrics.

Experienced workers fill talent gaps: Experience is a critical asset right now, and one that older workers have accumulated over the course of their lives and careers. According to author David DeLong, this experience makes older workers more likely to possess three types of knowledge in particular: human, social and cultural. Human knowledge relates to skills or expertise specific to a role, such as a legacy system or tools, while social knowledge relates to relationship skills. Cultural knowledge is a combination – it is the understanding of how things actually get done in an organisation.

Work quality improves with age: While stereotypes about age-related rigidity and cognitive decline abound, research shows that age and core task performance are largely unrelated. In fact, certain skills that can help older workers provide unique value to their organisations, such as social skills, can actually improve as we age. In addition, studies have also shown that older workers can be just as creative and innovative as younger employees. 

And while speed and the ability to multitask tend to decline after age 55, mature workers often display a great deal of wisdom, which can lead them to make more realistic judgements than some younger people do.

These duelling positive and negative effects associated with ageing seem to produce a consistent net effect: While older workers may be somewhat slower to complete some tasks, their work product tends to be of higher quality than that of younger workers.

Mature workers also tend to display stronger relationship skills and organisational citizenship behaviours. Outside an employee’s core tasks, there is a long list of behaviours that can promote how well a business functions – for example, showing up to work on time, displaying a positive attitude, complying with organisational norms and safety standards, and listening to instructions. All these things fall into the category of organisational citizenship.

 Research has shown that older workers are more likely than younger workers to demonstrate positive organisational citizenship. In other words, they tend to show up on time, avoid gossip, help their teammates, and keep their frustrations in check. They are also recognised for attributes such as loyalty, reliability, a strong work ethic, high skill levels and strong professional networks.

Older workers attract older customers: The population is ageing not only in our workplaces, but also in the market generally – and older individuals tend to have a lot of spending power. 

By maintaining representation of this customer base within the workforce, an organisation can improve its ability to engage with and even create new products and services for older buyers. As the saying goes, “nothing about us, without us”. In other words, to serve a population well, it’s best to have members of that population involved.

As many organisations are actively in the process of redesigning their work, workforce and workplace to better prepare for the future of work, let’s not overlook the fastest-growing segment of workers – the baby boomers – during that process. 

Attracting and retaining the ageing population could be key to unleashing the future of work in your organisation. Preparing programmes to engage the range of older workers should be a priority and may be a differentiator in talent and workforce strategies. 

It’s time to shift into action.

This article is an extract from Deloitte’s article, “No time to retire: Redesigning work for our ageing workforce” by Jeff Schwartz, Kelly Monahan, Steve Hatfield and Siri Anderson.


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