Adapting for an Ageing Workforce – A Glass Half Full Approach

February 4th, 2013

It all depends on how you look at things.    halffull_env1_hr

Many employees either want to, for social and well-being reasons or for economic reasons, have to continue working beyond age 65. There is clear evidence that the age at which we are retiring is increasing. However,  it appears that employers do not have a positive view of this. In a recent survey Irwin Mitchell polled employers and 54% indicated that they wanted a return to a default retirement age. Call me cynical but my guess is that those who responded are not individuals nearing 65 and the result may have been different otherwise. However, the result is still disappointing and demonstrates that the business case for retaining the skills of the older workers is not fully understood.

The chances of a return to a default retirement age are very slim and the impact of demographics mean that employers will have to come to terms with dealing with the impact at some point. These changes do present challenges both for the individuals who are extending their working lives, their younger colleagues entering the workplace and employers. However with the right support and approach we can all adapt successfully and those that do will gain a competitive advantage.

Here are my thoughts about the challenges to come and  the potential solutions.

The challenges

The demographics are startling: by 2025 and beyond the number of over 65’s will exceed the under 25’s. As the Baby Boomers start to retire in significant numbers there will be a loss of experience, talent and knowledge with insufficient numbers of younger workers to replace those retiring. This could lead to recruitment and retention difficulties and loss of vital skills and knowledge.

There is evidence that there are already retention difficulties with younger workers. The average length of employment in a job amongst Gen Y is only two years with unmet expectations of work being cited as the top cause of leaving. This is a huge cost to employers and could hinder the development of leaders for the future.

Inter generational differences have the potential to cause conflict in the workplace which can be costly and destructive to all. This may be a particular problem where older workers block opportunities for advancement by extending their working lives.

The Solutions

  • Start planning: Manage talent and put in place succession planning. Take action now to harness (and enhance) the contributions of older workers in order to gain a competitive advantage.
  • Embrace flexibility: Make positive use of the freedom that no fixed retirement brings. Think about offering different working arrangements and promote these as being available to all, in particular older workers.
  • Manage career expectations and broaden options: We all need to change our expectations about how careers are likely to progress throughout our working lives, As one commentator put it, we need to think about career climbing frames with movements in all directions, rather than career ladders which simply keep on climbing to the top. Providing different options will help older workers graduate towards retirement in a planned and dignified way and also open up opportunities for others to develop their skills and career.  Reward structures may need to be adjusted and thought given to different career paths
  • Identify talent: Take steps to retain and develop talent whatever the age. If the traditional opportunities for advancement are not available think about skills development, secondments, coaching and mentoring programmes, sideways moves, project working etc. Also there is no substitute for providing regular feedback and praise for those doing well.
  • Help individuals understand and manage the choices: Provide support to individuals to understand their life style and career choices enabling them to take control and positively manage any changes. This could include access to coaching and professional advice so that informed choices can be made.
  • Improve performance management:  Use the annual performance appraisal as an opportunity to ask all employees about their short-term, medium term and long-term goals. In addition performance objectives should be clear, objectively measured and applied to all employees equally regardless of age. In the event of the objectives not being met in some way alternatives should be considered.
  • Engage and improve working relationships: The role of the line manager will be key in managing these issues. If there is a good relationship and a high level of trust the line manager will know what the employees intentions are as conversations will be open, honest and transparent. It is therefore extremely important that line managers  have the skills to establish and maintain good working relationships and to confidently handle to what might be a difficult conversation.

I would be really interested to hear what employers are already doing to manage these challenges and whether there are other challenges and solutions that can be added to this list.

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One Response

  1. Helen Whitney says:

    Thanks Alison for raising this pertinent topic and providing proposed solutions which could result in many different benefits, not just in relation to the demographic challenge. From chatting to a number of employers recently, one of the challenges faced seems to come from employees who are ‘hanging on’ until they can draw on their final salary pension. This is particularly difficult where the employee is ‘coasting’ and has no interest in doing a great job anymore but cannot afford to leave work any sooner or drop to part time hours. In these circumstances it may appear there is no choice for the employee other than stick it out. But do they have a choice in how they react to the situation and is there a choice open to the employer in how to deal with it? It would be great to hear from any employers or employees who have made choices in these situations which had a mutually positive outcome.

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