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The older worker

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The older worker

Research shows that there are clear benefits for employers in retaining older workers and keeping them engaged, finds Adam Bernstein

A story on an online forum, The Conversation, makes for interesting reading. It reported on what many know – that employers in several countries around the world, including the UK, are struggling to recruit and are often unable to fill job vacancies.

Some say this is a result of the pandemic and the ‘great resignation’ or ‘great reshuffle’, where workers sought to leave roles they were unhappy in or wanted to improve their work-life balance. Others point to long-term sickness following Covid-related illnesses.

However, the real reason is more subtle, according to Joop Schippers, professor of Labour Economics at Utrecht University. He highlights a general decline in workers aged 35 years and under, along with an ageing workforce. And his perspective is entirely logical.

Birth rates in numerous countries have been falling since the 1960s. Many have a real demographic problem with an ageing population; Japan and South Korea are especially worried. Fundamentally, fewer young people are entering the workforce to fill vacancies left by the older generations retiring.

Older workers contribute

Older workers have much to offer employers and should not be overlooked. A 2017 report from the Centre for Ageing Better entitled What do older workers value about work and why? noted that there are clear benefits for employers in retaining older workers and keeping them engaged.

It found that older workers’ abilities do not suddenly diminish in the period leading up to and beyond state pension age, noting: “Many older workers may actually be more adept in their role because of the expertise they have gained; they often have highly developed communication skills and can confidently solve problems, handle tricky situations and contribute well to teams. Older workers often have unique insights and good judgement gained from their years of experience.”

The report added that “the benefits for employers who take engagement of older employees seriously include better retention, improved knowledge transfer, better employee relations and lower recruitment and training costs”.

A story in Forbes, a US business publication, adds more to the argument in favour of the older worker. Arlene Donovan wrote that older or mature workers know their strengths, address their weaknesses and are not afraid of their own shadow. “They are team players, know how to lead, can drive business needs and create sustainable outcomes,” she said. “Not only should you not be overlooking this, but you should be actively seeking out the breadth of knowledge and expertise an older worker possesses. Older workers are determined, innovative, strategic, loyal, revenue producing and creative problem solving professionals focused on the big picture.”

Keeping the older worker

It should be recognised that many (not all) older workers have choice. They are likely to be ‘free’ of children, may have paid off their mortgages, accumulated wealth over their working lives and received inheritances. In other words, they may not have to work.

This means that those wanting to keep older workers on board need to recognise that they want interesting work that stretches them and makes full use of their skills and experience. Like others, they are more likely to feel engaged and be motivated if they feel their job is varied and worthwhile.

One way of doing this is to grant autonomy over what they are asked to do while granting latitude over the how and when. This recognises that these workers have knowledge, experience and judgement that is valued.

A 2022 piece in the Harvard Business Review called 7 Principles to Attract and Retain Older Frontline Workers reported on another study. It found that more than two-thirds of older workers prioritised ‘fun places to work’.

It also found that older workers valued management that communicated expectations clearly. In addition, older workers want fair access to career development, with training and promotion opportunities; just because they are greying doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn about and use technology.

It is just as important to note that as we get older, our health needs change; aches, pains and medical conditions can lead a worker to feel that it’s time to retire. Employers need to make workplace adjustments if they want to keep older workers for as long as possible. Access to occupational health support, as well as appropriate physical adjustments, together with equipment that can help reduce effort or repetitious actions can make a big difference.

Flexible working arrangements such as reduced hours or ability to adjust the time and place of work are fundamental to making work more age-friendly. At the same time, older workers are likely to prefer less commuting.

Hiring the older worker

Employers that recruit and retain older workers tend to have an educated workforce that is alive to age discrimination issues. This applies to pay as much as anything else. Harvard commented here that employers should “look at pay equity by job and level, not tenure”.

This works both ways – an older worker may change career and not have direct experience. However, they’ll have other useful traits so may still justify a certain level of pay. At the other end of the scale, an employee may have professional experience which costs, but the expense can be contained by offering flexible and fewer hours.

Summary

It’s clear that we’re in an age of tight recruitment and that all avenues should be explored. Older workers have much to offer, and a wise employer will target them much as they would someone fresh to the world of work.

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