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Managing older workers

Georgina Fuller

With more and more people putting off retirement, Georgina Fuller looks are the pros and cons of an ageing workforce

Managing older workers is set to become a major issue for employers by 2020, according to a recent report by Towers Watson consultancy and the Economist Intelligence Unit think-tank. Almost three quarters (71%) of the 480 senior executives questioned expected the number of employees in the 60-plus age bracket to increase in the next six years. As a result, almost half (43%) expect greater employee demand for company benefits and over a third (35%) expect an increase in flexible working requests. 

But are older workers really that different from their younger colleagues and what are the main pros and cons of this demographic for employers?

Kris Ruby, president of Ruby Media Group, which employs a large number of workers in the 60-plus age bracket, says that managers need to take a totally different approach with older employees. “So much of the management work I do is virtual as many of our team members are from all over the country,” she explains. “We expect our team members to respond to emails and texts within seconds of receiving but we’ve found that an older demographic does not necessarily check their emails as frequently. They do not like the expectation of being tied to the technology and have more “black out” periods where they are unreachable.”

Whilst being inaccessible isn’t ideal in the PR industry, says Ruby, older workers are often more proactive and possess much better writing skills than their younger colleagues. “They [older workers] do not need a checklist of what to work on every day. They take the initiative on their own and are typically accountable for all work results and deliverables. They also tend to have a very strong work ethic, strong writing skills, strong “people” skills, and a high level of commitment.”

Yves Duhaldeborde, director of Towers Watson's employee surveys practice, says that older workers are, in fact, often an untapped asset for employers, especially when it comes to client-facing roles. “Older workers are realistic in their expectations. Salary increases are not a top priority for them anymore, but the client is. This comes out very clearly in the employee opinion data we collect,” he notes. “Older workers are concerned with the quality of service provided and the quality of company services and products. They are eager to share their knowledge and experiences to improve the satisfaction of internal and external clients.” 

Managers often presume that older workers are less ambitious or career minded as their younger colleagues but this is often totally unfounded, according to Duhaldeborde. “The biggest myth in our view is that older workers are not interested in learning and personal development. This is a mistake as older workers can be as ambitious to make the most of their experience and with retirement ages edging ever upwards, someone in their 60s can be willing and able to continue contributing for another decade.”

Alan Beazley, advice, policy and research at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei), says workers over the age of 60 are also often much more ‘switched on’ than managers expect or give them credit for. “There is little evidence of a decline in cognitive abilities in most tasks before the age of at least 70, and older workers performance, in terms of productivity, remains high because where any reduction in speed of task completion is compensated by reduced error rates,” he comments.

We are, of course, an ageing population and when it comes to preparing for the inevitable increase in older workers, flexible working, retirement provisions and age discrimination will all play a significant part.  As Beazley notes:  “The abolition of the Default Retirement Age, coupled with the worsened financial prospects for many workers as a consequence of the recession, has resulted in a significant increase in the employment of older workers – particularly those in the 65-plus age group, where the employment rate now exceeds 10 per cent.” 

The most significant thing employers will need to keep in mind is the need to cater for an increased demand for flexible working, says Beazley. “Demand is likely to increase when the right to request flexible working is extended to all employees later this year.  Also of great importance is the need to ensure that training and development opportunities are made available to older workers to ensure that their skills are maintained to deal with changing demands in the workplace.”

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