The Generation Gap: A new approach to a mature workforce

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Our series on “The Generation Gap” will explore how business leaders can better engage employees across the age spectrum and equip them with the tools for success. 

Older workers are one of the fastest growing segments of the labor market. By 2024, approximately 25 percent of U.S. workers will be 55 or older, more than double the rate in 1994, when they only accounted for 12 percent of the workforce. Many firms, however, have not yet adapted their recruiting, training, and employee engagement strategies to capitalize on this influx of older workers. 

In large part that is because stereotypes still persist, with many businesses dismissing older workers as too expensive, difficult to train, less productive, and too close to retirement to be worth the investment. But those myths have all been debunked, and older workers have been shown to bring many advantages to the table that younger workers often lack, such as experience, reliability, discipline, and attention to detail. 

According to Deloitte, staying competitive in this world of unprecedented longevity will require organizations to rethink assumptions about age and adopt new approaches to engaging older talent. In fact, companies that have already invested in policies that engage mature workers have already proven that they can be extremely successful, such as in the famous case study of Vita Needle, a manufacturing company where the average age of its workforce is 74 years old

Here are some key strategies that companies should consider:  

Retrain to retain

Although companies all agree that retaining good workers is far more valuable than finding new ones, many still hesitate to invest in training or development programs for older employees for fear that these employees will retire soon anyway. In reality, many Americans are pushing back retirement, often to age 70 or later. And it’s not just because they can’t afford to retire; in some cases older employees simply want to be working. 

Retraining employees on the latest trends and technologies not only helps them to keep their skills sharp, it also prepares them to more quickly step into new mission-critical roles as they arise. Such investments are likely to pay more dividends on older workers than their younger counterparts, as older workers are more likely to stay on the job—statistics show that workers that are 55 and older have an average tenure of 10.1 years at a job, while workers aged 25 to 34 stay only 2.8 years. 

AT&T, where the average age of tenure is 12 years (or 22 years if you don’t count their call center employees), recently invested $1 billion to “reskill” more than half of its 250,000 employees. It was a gamble that has since paid off immensely—half of all retrained employees received internal management positions or promotions, and the company reduced the product development cycle by 40% and accelerated time to revenue by 32%. 

Make work meaningful 

Although older workers certainly care about pay and benefits, it usually is no longer what matters most about a job. Instead, meaningful work ranks high among reasons employees 50 or older stay with their employer. Meaningful work, where employees feel they can apply their skills and knowledge to make an impact in some way, helps give people that all-important sense of purpose, as well as the social interaction they need to thrive.

To make work more meaningful for senior employees, companies should make particular efforts to acknowledge and use their experience within the organization, even if they are not within upper management. The U.S. military currently employs such tactics, by advising younger junior officers to treat their older and more experienced sergeants as partners and check in with them before making important decisions. The supervisor still sets the goals and holds people accountable, but the older subordinates have a big say in the execution. 

In fact, research suggests that putting older and younger workers (those early in their career) together can help both groups perform better. Because of their age difference, they are less likely to be competitive with one another and can focus on working together as a team. One way to foster such relationships is to create mentorship programs where older employees can impart their experience on their junior counterparts. Likewise, “reverse mentoring” is also beneficial, where younger employees mentor their senior colleagues to bring them up to speed on trends like social media. 

Actively recruit older workers

Aside from the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against people aged 40 or over at the workplace, companies that ignore older workers when hiring are likely missing out on opportunities to find great talent. When recruiting, one of the most important things your HR team and management can do is let go of biases. For example, don’t assume that older workers aren’t at all tech savvy (for context, the Internet itself is 30 years old, and the pioneers of this technology are well in their 60s by now) and don’t assume that they’re not as easy to train (a cognitive training study showed that older adults aged 65-80 had more stable performance with less variations day-to-day than their younger counterparts). 

Next, apply a more open-minded approach to your recruiting efforts. Be careful about using language such as “seeking digital natives” or “join our young, dynamic team” and train your hiring managers to look beyond age when evaluating candidates. Also be cautious about applying “cultural fit”—many companies fall into the trap of hiring people that are similar to those already in the company, especially when it comes to age. Instead, reiterate your company values to your hiring team and look specifically for employees that carry those same values, regardless of how old they are. 

Lastly, don’t assume that you can’t afford older workers because of their experience. You may find that older workers are open to more flexible work arrangements, including part-time or hourly work, and some are even willing to reduce title or authority in exchange for a lighter workload (and less stress). 

Adapting to an aging workforce 

Since the Great Recession, businesses have been slow to plan for an aging (yet still healthy) population. With the labor market tightening and U.S. unemployment rate at the lowest it has been in nearly 50 years, companies have no choice but to look to older workers to fill positions. But companies that truly embrace and engage mature talent will be the ones that find themselves reaping the rewards of their experience and expertise.