Employees Improve with Age
Successful organizations can show you how to address the needs of a mature workforce.
- By Eric Lesser
- Aug 01, 2006
"DON'T trust anyone over 30" was the cultural byword of the very generation
that is now approaching retirement age. The graying of Woodstock
Nation, a global demographic stretching from the United States to
Japan, would normally have signaled the departure of older workers and
the arrival of a younger generation. The relatively small number of
children born to the Baby Boomers, however, has resulted in an
unprecedented phenomenon: Employers in nearly every industrialized
nation are starting to think about retaining their workers ages 50 and
over, either as staffers or contractors. The current flock of
graybeards is simply too valuable to send off with simply a goodbye
party and a gold watch.
Hardest hit are the public and industrial sectors, including
government at all levels and industries such as chemicals, petroleum,
aerospace, defense, and mining. Not surprisingly, productivity in these
areas has depended on highly skilled "knowledge workers," many of them
with post-graduate degrees and three decades of hands-on experience. As
these workers depart the workplace, they take with them not only basic
on-the-job expertise, but also tacit information about managing client
relationships and finessing complex processes.
This brain drain is not expected to slow any time soon. In the
United States, the next big wave of workers is in the 16- to
24-year-old category, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and
it is growing at about 15 percent this decade. The more immediate
replacement workforce of 25- to 34-year-olds is growing only at half
that rate. The population between 35 and 44--the prime executive
development years, according to the Harvard Business Review--is actually declining.
The problem of an aging workforce is a phenomenon facing many mature
economies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the percentage
of U.S. workers older than 55 will almost double between 2000 and 2015.
In Texas, the population of those older than 65 is expected to increase
from about 2 million today to more than 5 million by 2030. This trend
is also apparent in Japan, Italy, and Germany, where the proportion of
people older than 65 will reach 20 percent between 2006 and 2009, up
from 10 percent just 20 years ago. Conspicuous gaps in the workforce
are further compounded by low birth rates. In Japan, the number of
people in their twenties will decline by 3.2 million during the next
decade, according to The Wall Street Journal. Extending
everyone's working life until 65 would keep 2 million more people in
the workforce. Along with women, who traditionally have stayed at home
in Japan, these older people would help compensate for the absence of
The aging workforce poses some real challenges that companies will
have to address to ensure their profitability, potential for
innovation, and successful marketing to the largest elderly consumer
base in history. Below are six strategies that some of the world's most
successful organizations already have implemented to address the needs
of a mature workforce.
Strategies for Success
- Redirect recruiting efforts to include mature workers.
Wal-Mart subsidiary ASDA, the UK's largest retailer, has a special
recruitment program aimed at older workers. ASDA Goldies offers full-
and part-time positions with flexible hours, discounted health care and
dental coverage, a pension plan, four weeks paid holiday, and unpaid
personal leave. The program has been successful: Nearly one-fifth of
the retailer's 122,000 employees are older than 50, with some well into
their seventies. ASDA received the Nestlé Social Commitment Award in
2002 and this year landed in the top 10 of the Sunday Times Top 100 Best Employers Survey--the third time in a row.
- Retain valued employees by offering alternative work arrangements.
Why try to entice your best employees back after they've already left?
The Aerospace Corporation, for example, has developed a "retiree
casual" program that permits contractual arrangements with former
employees for up to 1,000 hours a year. Some 500 participating
employees at the El Segundo, Calif.-based non-profit research and
development firm can earn roughly the same base salary they made before
retiring (adjusting for modified roles and responsibilities). The
company also offers a "try-on" retirement plan that lets older workers
take a leave of absence to see whether they are ready to retire or not.
Said one former executive vice president and program participant,
"People often remark that we don't have many consultants around here.
Actually, we do, but they are called retirees, and they already know
the business inside-out."
- Preserve critical knowledge before it walks out the door.
To retain tacit knowledge, the World Bank produces videotapes and
audiotapes of stories by individuals and groups who were involved in
challenging projects. Subject matter experts conduct the interviews,
edit the tapes, and then make the stories available by CD and intranet.
Documents referred to in the course of an interview appear as hot
links. Most interviewees are available for follow-up conversations and
- Provide for continuous updating of skills. Training
opportunities for older workers at Lufthansa had not been adequately
addressed for more than a decade. The German airline company announced
the "added experience program," an initiative that addresses the
learning needs of managers ages 45 and up. The one-year program ensures
the transfer of informal skills to colleagues; facilitates the exchange of valuable experiences and
personal contacts; and helps top senior management tap into the
know-how that seasoned managers bring to the table.
- Facilitate the workplace coexistence of multiple generations.
At the dawn of the e-commerce era, 500 senior managers at General
Electric began working with junior associates to understand how
Internet technologies could enhance profitability. Junior mentors and
senior novices, paired up on the basis of temperament and skill level,
spent two to four hours a week studying the World Wide Web. The
arrangement--in keeping with GE's "boundaryless" work environment--was
a win-win: Senior executives acquired insight into critical Web-based
technologies, while junior people gained access to executives they
otherwise would not have had.
- Make sure mature workers know how to use current technology.
Manufacturing and trade companies, which laid off workers during the
tech boom of the late 1990s, are now in desperate need of workers,
according to WorkinfoNET, a Toronto, Ontario, Web site. Requirements
for positions, however, have changed thanks to the implementation of
advanced technologies. A 2005 study of state agency employees done at
Louisiana State University observes that older workers are actually
more open to learning new technologies than their younger counterparts.
Imbued with a strong work ethic, they are even more inclined to make
changes that benefit their organizations. The study nonetheless
confirmed the popular belief that older people learn more slowly,
although a steeper learning curve is generally offset by their
commitment and willingness to learn.
Access is Paramount
Additionally, companies need to be sure not only that older
employees know how to use current technologies, but also that it is
accessible to them. For example, knowing how to navigate around a Web
site is fruitless if the font size is too difficult for the aging eyes
of the maturing workforce to read.
Management consultant Peter Drucker has called knowledge the "new
basis for competition in post-capitalist society." Any loss of
intellectual capital signals a looming crisis that companies in an age
of emerging economies, global markets, and on-demand technologies
cannot afford to ignore. The byword now: Don't trust anyone who argues
against keeping or hiring older workers. Fiftysomethings--and up--are
literally a brain trust you cannot afford to waste.
This column appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
- Dychtwald, Ken, Tamara Erickson, and Bob Morison. "It's time to retire retirement." Harvard Business Review. March 2004.
- ASDA Web site: www.asda.co.uk.
- "Retaining Valuable Knowledge: Proactive Strategies to Deal with a Shifting Workforce." APQC Best Practice Report, August 2002.
- Euler, Petra, "Die vergessenen Manager trainieren," in Personal fuhrung, 1998, p. 1.
- GE Annual Report, 1999; Schlender, B. et al., "The Odd Couple," Business 2.0 May 2000; Breen, B. "Trickle-Up Leadership," Fast Company magazine. November 2001; Low, L. "New Tricks for Old Dogs," CIO
magazine. October 15, 2000; Useem, M. "Leading Up: How to Lead Your
Boss So You Both Win." 2001. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press, p.
- The Chicago Tribune.
This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.