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Developing over 50s leaders

Steve Coomber

Figures climbing on books

With people living longer and a lack of younger people coming into the workforce to meet the growing number of jobs, understanding what your older workers want from work could be the key to making UK plc succeed. Steve Coomber reports

For all those workers with visions of a long retirement, travelling the world, working through the reading pile, and ticking off the bucket list, think again. The reality for many in the future will be working longer, well into later life. The question is, will the legions of older workers be motivated, happy and productive, or merely going through the motions as they watch the clock wind down?

In March 2015, Ros Altmann CBE, the government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, published A New Vision for Older Workers. The report highlights the challenges that changing UK workplace demographics pose to business bosses and policymakers.

The figures are persuasive. By 2022, there will be some 700,000 fewer people aged 16 to 49, but 3.7 million more aged between 50 and State Pension age. Ideally, these older workers should play an active and productive role in the UK economy. But there is a potential problem for UK firms. The default retirement age may be history but at present workforce participation tails off as age increases, with 80% of 50 year-olds in work, some 60% of 60 year-olds, and only 30% of 65 year-olds.

If the statistics suggest organisations must do more to recruit and retain older workers aged 50 plus, they also reveal that many older workers will want to extend their careers, whether due to financial necessity, job enjoyment, or other reasons. The real challenge is making sure that those workers are engaged and motivated. This may require a fundamental rethinking of what careers and career fulfilment look like in later life. ILM's research, Untapped talent: Can over 50s bridge the leadership skills gap??, suggests that employers need to do more to develop their managers once they reach 50 and above.

Honest conversations

Central to motivating and engaging older workers is a mutual understanding achieved through effective communication. “At the most basic level it is having conversations between managers and employees about expectations, and laying out options for the employee,” says Matt Flynn, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce at Newcastle University Business School. “It’s a conversation that needs to start early on, though. If the first time the employer has a conversation with an employee about different job options is within two or three years of retirement the employee is likely to assume the subtext is really about them being pushed out of the door.”

One way to include these conversations is through midlife career reviews. These were piloted in a 2013-2014 government funded project, and are offered by unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills organisation, as part of its supporting midlife development campaign.

“People welcome the opportunity to review their life situation, where they are, where they are going, and talk about a multitude of things affecting them,” says Jane Warwick, Supporting Learners Development Officer at unionlearn. “For example, one question we ask is ‘Can you envisage doing your job in ten years? As you get older is it something you can stay in until you retire?’ If the answer’s no, we help look at the options available.”

The review is facilitated via a union learning rep, often in liaison with the organisation. Usually there will be signposting back to the employer, says Warwick. So if people are uncertain about flexible working or promotional opportunities, for example, the learning rep and employer’s HR managers may work together to resolve the situation.

In a world where workforces may contain four or five generations, keeping older workers engaged also means facilitating conversations between generations. A good example is the ‘Generations’ network launched in 2014 at integrated facilities management services firm, Sodexo.

“It’s an employee network group designed to educate our employee population around intergenerational differences, but also provide ways for people from different generations to come together and share experiences,” says Megan Horsburgh, head of diversity and inclusion at Sodexo UK & Ireland. “It gets people in our teams talking and interacting and being honest about the way they like to work and their values. And while it’s for all generations, it highlights opportunities or challenges where we might want to work with a particular generation.”

Good communication allows organisations to recognise, and where possible, meet the individual needs of older workers. This may involve rethinking career development beyond traditional linear approaches, with older workers’ careers punctuated by periods of flexible working, short learning courses, or sabbaticals, for example, depending on the employee preferences.

“Managers should ask questions that allow them to understand what motivates an individual. What are their career aspirations? What are their life goals? They might be different. You might have an older worker wanting to remain in work but who would like to take a sabbatical – they’ve always wanted to go to India - and then return to work,” says Horsburgh. “You don’t assume that, because somebody is older, they don’t want career development. Where there was a view that people increase in seniority in organisations as they increase in seniority of years, I don’t think that will necessarily be the case going forwards. People will want more flexibility, to move horizontally, for example.”

Don’t stop training

Moving to another role is likely to involve skill assessment and training and development. Some rethinking may be needed here, too. “Research suggests older workers are less likely to take up training than younger workers,” says Flynn. “There are problems in terms of managers being less likely to offer training to older workers. Plus older workers don’t take up training because they think it signals that they’re not competent at their job. And training is often geared to younger workers in the way it’s set up – the outcomes, the length of training.”

A range of learning opportunities is required for older workers, from conventional long-term formal qualifications to shorter courses focused on topping up skills, drawing on and validating existing experience. While organisations will offer support, older workers should proactively track down learning and development opportunities. One welcome development is an increase in organisations, such as Barclays and National Express, for example, offering apprenticeship schemes open to older workers. These are win-win opportunities where older people with suitable skills and experience can try out new roles before organisations commit to buying their services.

Knowledge sharing is another way of enabling older workers to feel valued. “If older workers want to cut down before stopping, then introducing a mentoring scheme where they can impart their knowledge to younger colleagues can be a constructive way of keeping older staff engaged and motivated,” says older workers’ business champion Altmann. This can work both ways, with generations trading skills and experience.

Justine James, co-founding director of organisational development consultants, talentsmoothie, was involved with Altmann’s business taskforce, and has worked with Sodexo on generational diversity programmes. She highlights some interesting issues that may complicate implementing intergenerational knowledge sharing.

“On the one hand we’re losing the art of having these conversations with experts in the organisation. Younger generations often value peer recommendations, rather than expert opinion, for example. People use Google to find things out,” says James. “However, you can’t Google something you haven’t thought of, so that is part of the value of this older workforce. But organisations will need to think of the best ways to capitalise on their knowledge.”

As James also notes, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers tend to value hierarchies and a person’s progress up the corporate ladder. Gen Y are more interested in ‘wirearchies’- the interconnections and the power of the network. They are, perhaps, less respectful of title, education, and experience. That is where intergenerational understanding gained through networks like Sodexo’s becomes invaluable.

Training and development may also extend to more unusual areas. Health is more of an issue with older workers. Some 42% of older workers have at least one long-term health condition which they manage at work, for example, notes Flynn. Cheryl Haslam, director of the Work and Health Research Centre at Loughborough University, leads of the working age project, investigating the impact of aspects of work, such as the journey to work and workplace design, on the health of older workers. A web-based resource, Organiser for Working Late, provides tools for managers and workers.

Responsive managers

“By 2020, it is estimated that 50% of the working population will be over 50,” says Haslam. “Organisations need be able to respond to this. Training for older workers and their managers about healthy working is important in terms of retaining people in the workforce, and keeping them engaged and healthy in their work.”

Facilitating the career development and fulfilment of older workers is a challenge firms will need to master. Get it right, though, implementing good practices around older workers, and the benefits can be substantial. One organisation with the right approach is table top product supplier, Steelite International. Take the example of an older worker at Steelite with 30 years’ experience as a factory operative in the glazing department. “Through open conversations and discussions we felt she could give so much more,” says human resources manager, Louise Griffin. “She’s now the Union Learning Rep, a company ambassador, employee champion and works in our health and safety department as a standards assessor.”

Another Steelite worker, a warehouse labourer aged 62, had problems using a traditional truck due to back trouble which led to him taking time off work, says Griffin. After guidance and consultation with occupational health, the company invested in an electrical truck which made it easier for the employee to perform his work duties. And one of the company’s finalists for its learner of the year awards was a 63 year-old warehouse operative who had taken maths, English, warehousing and ceramics courses that year, showing that age is no barrier to learning.

These are just a few examples at one organisation of what is possible with the right attitude. “A lot of us are ageist,” says James. “We think that the older population is set in their ways, that they can’t learn new skills, can’t adapt to new technology, and of course that really isn’t right. We have to change our mindset around age.” 

Read Untapped Talent: Can over 50's bridge the leadership skills gap? here

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