Older workers

Older workers
an age of opportunity

Many countries will soon be faced with an ageing workforce, but too many organisations view this as challenge. It’s time for businesses to see a growing proportion of older workers as an opportunity, not a burden.

oudere werknemers - Hays.nl
Read time: 7 minutes | Published in Hays Journal 18

Today, Japan is the only country in the world where those aged 60 and over represent more than 30 per cent of the population. By 2050, 62 countries will reach that percentage.

In the US, Americans of retirement age will eclipse the number of people aged 18 and under for the first time in the country’s history by 2035, government figures show. And globally, the number of people aged 60 and over is projected to double to more than 2 billion by 2050, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with those 60 and over outnumbering children under the age of five. Yet, in Europe only a third of people between the ages of 60 and 64 are in employment, according to the International Longevity Centre (ILC). 

While the proportion of older employees is growing across many workforces, a significant percentage of these workers do not feel their employer is helping them reach their full potential.

Research from Aviva found that 44 per cent of older workers in full- and part-time roles in the UK felt unsupported by their employer when it comes to their career ambitions.

So how can organisations support older workers more effectively and enable them to give their best at work?

Ending bias

One of the first steps in bridging this generational gap is addressing and overcoming age bias, which is all too prevalent when it comes to retention efforts, with a number of employers targeting younger talent while making assumptions about older workers.

Paul Irving, Chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging in California, says that, while the prevailing narrative suggests that the ageing workforce might impede the progress of younger workers, there is little evidence to support that concern. “Economies and opportunities are elastic. Older and younger workers bring different talents and perspectives to workplaces and there’s increasing evidence that intergenerational teams outperform single generation teams of any age,” he notes.

The statistics back up Irving’s comments too. A Boston Consulting Group study of 1,700 companies in eight countries found that businesses with above-average total diversity (in terms of migration, industry, career path, gender, education and age) on average scored 19 percentage points higher in innovation revenues and nine higher in earnings before tax margins.


And while older workers are more prone to feeling fearful of artificial intelligence (AI), they typically bring a host of other skills such as mentorship, judgement and experience, while their younger colleagues bring fresh thinking, creativity, and technological capabilities that complement their experienced counterparts. And as AI, robotics, autonomous transportation and other new technologies are set to change the world of work dramatically, Irving says reassuring workers across all demographics is vital. 

“Both young and old share concerns about the future of work and solutions must address the needs and aspirations of workers of every age.”

Time to develop

Many of today’s older workers are of the ‘sandwich generation’ – those who may be both financially responsible for children and caring for elderly parents. This, says Donna Miller, European HR director at car rental firm Enterprise Holdings, may be a contributing factor when it comes to having to work longer and keep reskilling. “There are overarching and often economic factors that mean a person isn’t able to retire at a specific age,” she notes. “This could be because they haven’t put in place the financial plans, might have caring responsibilities or because their financial plans have not worked out as expected.” 

This can, however, be advantageous for businesses, says Miller. While they may take a more ‘junior’ role than that of their last job, they can still bring a depth and breadth of knowledge that their younger colleagues may lack. “They are often looking for flexibility and ideally for a regular commitment.”

If employers are unsure how to support older employees, they should, says Irving, simply ask them. “Invite dialogue with experienced staff to seek their advice and input on a wide range of challenges and possibilities. Then listen to what they have to say,” he notes. “Consider age-friendly approaches such as flexible work hours, job sharing, part-time opportunities, transitional retirements and workplaces designed for a changing demography.” 

Irving says diversity and inclusion policies should also be broadened to ensure they encompass age. “Age diversity is a strength, and the inevitability of population ageing means that every enlightened company must think now about new ways to retain experienced talent, integrate the old and young, and adopt policies and practices that maximise the loyalty and productivity of workers of every age,” he notes.

Learn from experienced older workers

Ed Johnson, CEO and founder of global mentoring network PushFar, says mentoring can also be a very effective way for organisations to leverage the knowledge, skills and experience of an ageing workforce. “We are finding time and time again that those individuals coming to retirement or who have recently retired make highly effective mentors,” he says. 

Encouraging intergenerational mentoring, with both older and younger mentors, can have a huge positive impact on employee engagement, a sense of empowerment and cross-organisational success, says Johnson. 

However, Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, says that there is still a significant variation between sectors when it comes to employing older workers.

“For example, the hospitality sector is mainly made up of younger workers while the health and social work sector has a large number of older workers,” he notes. 

There may also be a misconception by some employers that if people are working for longer and later, they will inevitably be taking employment opportunities away from young people, which could be more prevalent in certain sectors, says Boys. “There are not a fixed number of jobs in the economy; more people in work creates more demand and more economic growth, which in turn leads to more jobs.”

Global outlook

Some countries may also be managing the ageing population more effectively than others, says Dr Brian Beach, Senior Research Fellow at the International Longevity Centre. “The realities are very different from country to country. In Western countries, where retirement traditions and policies are more established and where early retirement was encouraged in the late 1970s and 1980s, ageing populations create a challenge for national economies to balance their public pension expenditure with revenue from income and employment taxes,” he notes. “Some non-Western countries have seen stronger trends in semi- or partial retirement among people in later life, some of which will be driven by a relative lack of formal pension systems or lack of security in retirement income.” 

There are, however, several initiatives seeking to support older workers and give them fuller working lives across Europe. For example, Deutsche Bahn, the train operator in Germany, has recently helped shift their older employees from more physically demanding positions to customer-facing roles, which is, says Beach, partly inspired by the recognition that people feel more comfortable approaching older staff to request assistance or advice. “And Finland has been a world leader in the concept of age management and the concept of work ability,” he notes. 

In fact, the Finnish National Programme on Ageing Workers, which was launched all the way back in 1996 and ran until 2002, encouraged older workers to participate in the workforce for longer, while providing training and upskilling to help them stay up to date with technological advances.

Keeping opportunities equal

Arwen Makin, a senior solicitor at ESPHR, says employing older workers may be a sensitive area for employers to navigate, especially when it comes to retirement. “Organisations cannot request that an employee retires or be seen to try to plant the seed without getting into risky territory and risking age discrimination and constructive dismissal claims,” she notes. 


While there are some very fit and competent people over the age of 65, there may come a time, says Makin, when there is a natural decline in a worker’s capabilities. “This is where things can become tricky and there is a need to adopt a sensible yet sensitive approach.  If someone has been employed for a particular role – which they might have been doing perfectly well for years – you cannot discriminate against them as they get older,” she says. “You can however look to performance-manage any issues which arise in a fair way.”

Fostering a culture of inclusivity, open communication and mutual respect is the best way of addressing this, says Makin. “The moment you start treating older workers differently, you stop engaging them and run the risk of damaging company culture,” she notes.

Given the differences between generations, and the upcoming seismic demographic changes we are witnessing, HR directors should be putting the topic of an ageing workforce at the top of their agenda. 

The benefits of embracing a multigenerational workforce have been demonstrated, and employers who actively embrace age diversity will be able to open their doors to a huge incremental talent pool of older workers that may have previously been ignored.

Ultimately, says Angela O’Connor, CEO of the HR Lounge consultancy, it’s about realising that older workers want the same sort of things younger workers want: “Quality jobs, good relationships with their colleagues, meaningful work that links to their values and the ability to make a difference – the same thing we all want, regardless of age.”

This article has been published in Hays Journal 18


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