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Utilising older workers

Jo Ousten

Inside an older workers' brain lies lots of knowledge about your organisatin, as this illustration shows

Underestimating the vast experience of older workers is a huge mistake, especially during a recession, says career development expert Jo Ouston

With the recession challenging even the most capable of professionals, one simply cannot put a price on experience and the ability to tap into ‘corporate memory’ to make the right decision.

However bright your graduate and middle managers are, they simply can't magic up 20 years of experience to draw upon when the situation demands, and it would be wrong to expect them to do so.

Ian Brinkley of the Work Foundation captures this sentiment perfectly in his quote for the Friends Provident Visions of Britain – Workforce 2020 report: “One of the greatest shocks of this downturn was the realisation that hardly anyone, particularly in the senior reaches of companies, actually remembers what the last recession was like.

"This was particularly acute in government and the corporate sector. You’ve got no collective memory left in the organisation. A lot of firms have found that the loss of corporate memory from their older and more senior workers is quite a difficult problem.”

Specialist knowledge

An example which perfectly illustrates this point is the recent review of the Treasury's handling of the financial crisis.

The Treasury reported that it had been badly prepared to tackle the situation and blamed the "failure to spot the dangers brewing in the financial system and the wider economy" on high staff turnover and a lack of core skills.

Reporting on the Treasury's admission, the Financial Times revealed the average age of a Treasury employee is just 32. With annual staff turnover at around 28 per cent (largely due to poor salary levels), the department finds it hard to retain talent.

The middle-aged brain is primed to navigate the world better because it has been navigating the world better for longer.
As a result, the staff is much younger than in the rest of the civil service and there are too few with specialist knowledge of how financial markets work.

Critics, including the Treasury itself, cited this lack of experience as a key factor in ‘red flags’ being ignored.

The issue of corporate memory and the disregard for the experience and skills of the older generation has also been flagged as a major flaw in the health secretary's plans to slash the number of NHS trusts – a move which will see many seasoned practitioners and experienced board members lose their positions at a crucial time of change.

In a letter to the NHS confederation, which represents the health services' top managers, senior executives cited the “huge potential to lose corporate memory” as a major concern.

As well as providing a link to corporate memory, more mature workers also play an important role in transferring knowledge and corporate culture to future generations. Provided of course, that these ‘elders’ remain part of the community.

As the Visions of Britain Workforce 2020 report puts it: “A corporate culture can’t be expressed without community. Without a community, knowledge – our most precious resource – can’t be transferred naturally”.

Not just a distant memory

Over and above the benefits of employing older people in terms of corporate memory and the transfer of knowledge, the capabilities of a mature mind can prove an invaluable asset to businesses who aren't afraid to use it.

In her excellent 2011 book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, Barbara Strauch, science editor of The New York Times, emphasises the “surprising talents of the middle-aged mind".

Those in middle age – between 40 and 65 – may have some issues with short term memory and recalling names, but, if they are relatively healthy, they are better than ever during that period.

Stauch argues that when we reach middle age we have capacities that are more profound than the relatively trivial ability to recall instantly the names of people (or things), which equates to remembering the label rather than the person themselves.

We have a much greater understanding of who people are, the complex relationships between them, the politics of situations and the significance of events.

We are better at inductive reasoning and problem solving – the logical use of the brain – and actually getting to solutions.

With this capability, many middle-aged employees can get to the gist of an argument faster than their younger counterparts, and are better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution.

Strauch's conclusion that social expertise peaks in middle age can also pay dividends in building strong relationships with colleagues and clients.

Been there, done that

By the time we reach middle age, the brain has built up all sorts of connections and pathways that help with this process. We've seen a lot and done a lot.

The middle-aged brain is primed to navigate the world better because it has been navigating the world better for longer.
Employers that understand and appreciate the advantages of retaining and recruiting older people, over and above preserving corporate

memory, will reap the benefits of having a diverse and well-rounded workforce in place.

Jo Ouston is the founder and director of Jo Ouston & Co

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