Some 20 months ago, I delivered a presentation Managing an Ageing Workforce at the National Local Government HR Conference. I want to share some of the key points I made then.
Firstly, what do we mean by ‘older workers’? Is it 60, 55, 50, 45, or even 40?!? I found some interesting contrasts. The Australian Bureau of Statistics and OECD give 65 as the threshold for ‘old age’. For the United Nations, it is 60, and some research I uncovered quoted 55 as ‘old’. Still coming down, the Commonwealth Age Discrimination Commissioner referred to 45 as ‘old’, and some international research maintains that old age begins at 40 in the workplace!
You may (or may not) know that we have a real problem/challenge on our hands. There are currently around a million workers in Australia who have recently retired or are about to retire, and we don’t have enough Gen X and Gen Y workers to replace them. These baby boomers are taking a lot of expertise with them, and various organisations are already feeling the pinch. I work with many local councils and they have relatively mature workforces, so they are definitely experiencing this problem.
Why do people retire? For various reasons, including: pursuing leisure activities; having had enough of the relentless stress/pressure that characterises our workforce; no longer having the job satisfaction they might have once had; and having finally gained financial independence to have a reasonable lifestyle in retirement. The other side of the coin is that many mature workers aren’t retiring because: they can’t financially afford to retire (they may have been badly hit by the GFC); they still really enjoy their work and see no reason to stop; their employers are supportive of them, perhaps giving them part-time or casual work that caters for their wants and needs.
There have recently been changes in the Australian working culture. Until recently, early retirement was actively promoted. Over a quarter of the men, and over half of the women were retiring before 55. Furthermore, around 80% of men and 90% of women retired before 65. Now, more baby boomers are delaying retirement (often for the above reasons), but older workers are still more likely to be retrenched and less likely to be hired in weaker times – this reflects the negative stereotypes of mature workers that persists.
Yes, folks, ageism exists. It is a real barrier to mature work participation, and the Australian Institute of Management wrote a paper in 2013, Engaging & Retaining Older Workers, which confirmed this. It highlighted the stereotype that mature workers are undervalued, seen to have lower energy, physical and mental capacity, difficulty learning new skills/technology, and are also less competent, productive, and resistant to change. While there may be elements of truth for some mature workers, this stereotype is at sharp odds with the views of many key figures who recognise what mature workers have to offer. Take M Wauchope, the WA Public Sector Commissioner, for instance. He said,
“An age diverse workforce has real benefits for any organisation. The ability to harness the skills, experience and enthusiasm of people of any age creates a cooperative work environment where the individuals, regardless of their age, can contribute.”
What are the potential benefits of hiring and retaining mature age workers? There are quite a few. These include:
- lower turnover rates
- corporate knowledge
- better attendance/productivity
- greater work experience
- maturity and patience
- minimal supervision
- mentoring/corporate knowledge
So here is the inherent problem – we now have more skilled, competent people now leaving the Australian workforce than can be replaced, and we have many mature workers who would love to stay in the workforce if the organisation allowed this, and catered more effectively for their situations.
Here are some ways in which organisations can resolve this dilemma:
Develop specific plans and policies, to enable mature workers to pass on their expertise. Examples include training and mentoring, job shadowing, job-sharing, knowledge mapping, and team sharing practices
Job redesign to involve staff in organisational development projects, mentoring or coaching. Help managers redesign jobs for flexible work opportunities, meaningful work, and transfer of key knowledge and skills to younger staff.
Promote flexible work practices. Ensure line management support, highlight the flexibility in recruitment processes, ask mature employees what they would like, and identify and remove real & perceived barriers.
Health and well-being strategies. Liaise with staff, HR and WHS representatives, conduct regular ergonomic checks of the workplace, manage work safety risks for mature staff, give access to exercise and health information services, and put work-life balance on the agenda.
Reward and recognition. Give managers scope to recognise and reward staff (there are many ways to recognise workers), provide financial planning and retirement advice, and provide secondments, mentoring opportunities, job rotations, training/seminars, etc.
I’ll now make a confession. I am a baby boomer, and I am as passionate and productive in my work now as I have ever been –just ask my clients. Go, baby boomers!
Narayan van de Graaff