Older workers: why it’s important to keep them happy

The Great Resignation is being partly driven by older workers opting for early retirement. How can organizations retain these highly experienced and skilled workers and what challenges does an aging workforce present to businesses?

Older workers in the workplace
Aging in the workforce

Aging in the workforce

For some while now, commentators have expressed concern about the so-called ‘silver tsunami’ - the effect on the workforce of Baby Boomer employees reaching retirement age at around the same time. Although not the biggest generation in the global workforce - that distinction goes equally to Generation X and Millennials - Boomer employees carry with them a wealth of experience and organizational knowledge which are difficult to replace.

But, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, predictions of a silver tsunami have proved to be an under-estimate. In fact, some are suggesting that the Great Resignation is actually the Great Retirement, with older adult employees, some of them Gen X and not yet at traditional retirement age, leaving the workforce in droves.

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According to Pew Research, in the third quarter of 2020, 28.6 million US Baby Boomers reported that they had retired from the labor force. This is 3.2 million more than the same time in the previous year. And in the UK, it’s estimated that there are 180,000 fewer over-50s in the workforce following the pandemic. What’s more, the majority of people aged 50-64 who are unemployed are not seeking work. So why is this happening?

Perhaps the key lies in attitudes to older workers. In today’s increasingly multi-generational workplace, organizations can see older workers as challenging. Younger managers may feel uncomfortable about supervising people older than themselves. Or they may doubt older people’s ability to get to grips with technology.

When Harvard Business Review carried out research for Deloitte, more than two-thirds of the companies questioned said older age was a competitive disadvantage. And while it’s true that older workers may have different communication styles to their Gen Y and Gen Z colleagues, they’re a hugely valuable resource for businesses - and in an age of severe labor and skills shortages, not one they can easily afford to lose.

So what can businesses do to recruit and retain older workers? The first step may lie in understanding why people are choosing to leave.

Why are over-50s leaving the labor market?

Why are over-50s leaving the labor market?

Retirement is the reason most commonly given by UK over-50s for leaving the workforce. But drilling down into this a little shows it’s not so simple. Older workers also cited stress, mental health, and not feeling valued in their jobs as triggers for leaving the labor market. As one worker aged over-50 put it: “I no longer had any job satisfaction and felt physically and mentally exhausted with many stress-related physical manifestations.”

Ageism in the workplace is also something older workers have to contend with. When questioned by Senior Living, US over-40s reported being the targets of a range of discriminatory behaviors, predominately age discrimination, from unwanted jokes to being passed over for promotion. Of course, younger employees can also be discriminated against on the grounds of age, but despite this, the issue of ageism is often absent from many DE&I strategies.

This is something within the power of organizations to address. And while organizations may have difficulty in dissuading those choosing to retire as a lifestyle choice, workplace wellbeing, mental health and inclusion are all areas where positive action can be taken to make work more welcoming, fun and satisfying for all.

Advantages of retaining and hiring older employees

Advantages of retaining and hiring older employees

While much is done to attract and retain Millennial and, more recently, Gen Z workers, relatively little attention is given to older employees - what they want, what they need and what will keep them in your business. Perhaps this is because organizations don’t realize how much these workers can contribute. So here are just a few of the things older workers have to offer:

  • Loyalty

    While Gen Z workers spend an average of 2 years and 3 months in a job, Gen X-ers stay for an average of 5 years and 2 months, and Baby Boomers stick with their roles for an average of 8 years and 3 months. With the average cost of recruiting an employee estimated at $4,000, retaining loyal older workers can represent significant savings.

  • Diverse perspectives

    Different generations may think differently - but that’s not a problem, it’s a plus. Multigenerational teams can bounce ideas off each other, leading to more productivity and exciting innovation.

  • Ability to connect with older customers

    As people live longer, the population as a whole is aging, so it makes sense that many customers and users of services will be older too. Having older employees helps give organizations first-hand insight into this market and how to best serve their needs.

  • Skills and experience

    Older workers can bring life skills to the table, as well as the deep, practical knowledge that only experience can bring.

  • Productivity

    Contrary to what some people may believe, it’s not necessarily the case that older workers take more days off because of illness than their younger counterparts. In fact, one study found that over-50s are half as likely to take a sick day as younger workers.

  • Established networks of contacts

    Mature workers who have been in their industry for a long time have had the chance to amass a wide network of contacts, who could be valuable to the whole organization.

Managing older employees

Managing older employees

Managing older employees comes with its own unique set of benefits and challenges. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of older workers.

Be flexible

The pandemic has given many office-based workers more choice over when and where they work, and no generation is keen to give this up. But flexibility is perhaps most important for older workers, who may well have other responsibilities as family caregivers. When the UK’s Office for National Statistics questioned older workers, it found that those looking for paid work would prefer it to be part-time. They also said that, for them, flexible working was the most important thing when looking for a new job.

Invest in health care and wellbeing

It’s a fact that as people get older they get more prone to chronic conditions – back pain, for example – even if that doesn’t stop them from doing their jobs. That’s why, to keep all your employees healthy, happy and productive, it’s so important to invest in health care as well as physical and mental wellbeing at work.

Avoid stereotyping

Like many other groups, older workers can be the victims of bias - conscious and unconscious. So it’s important to get to know people rather than making assumptions about them.

In one widely reported experiment, two almost identical CVs were sent out, one purportedly from a 28-year-old and one from a 50-year-old. The older person was 3.6 times less likely to be called for an interview. But discrimination isn’t always so blatant - even using phrases like ‘lively’ or ‘energetic’ in a job ad can put off older candidates who might have exactly the right skills to fill the role.

Communicate in a way that works

While all workers have had to get to grips with virtual communication during the pandemic, there may be a feeling that for older workers the workplace revolution promised by the metaverse may be a bridge too far. The fact is, many older employees are just as excited about technology as their younger counterparts.

But at the same time, you may need to give leeway. Having a choice of ways to communicate and collaborate - for example, giving the option of logging into a virtual environment via video call rather than using a VR headset - can play to the strengths not just of older workers, but also those with different communication styles.

Make the most of experience

One of the biggest problems with large numbers of older people leaving the workforce is that their knowledge goes with them. That’s why it’s vital to give more experienced employees the chance to pass on their skills, whether that’s through formal coaching and training, or more informal mentoring arrangements. And as well as making sure valuable skills are passed on, mentoring and coaching can increase job satisfaction for everyone involved.

Offer training

Everyone needs the opportunity to learn and grow. Make sure older employees have the training they need, both to take their careers where they want they want them to go and stay up to date with tech advances.

Showing people they’re valued

Showing appreciation for knowledge and experience will stand managers in good stead, especially if they’re worried about being younger than people they’re managing. Everyone wants to be appreciated, recognized for their abilities and allowed to play to their strengths.

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