Why — and How — Your Company Should Embrace Older Workers

July 17, 2019

More than half of Americans over the age of 50 are being pushed out of their jobs, long before they’re ready to retire, according to a recent study from ProPublica and the Urban Institute. And research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found, unambiguously, that: “A lot of Americans who are sitting at home not working want to be working.”

In an article called “The Longevity Dividend: Work in an Era of 100-Year Lives,” Deloitte noted that the global life expectancy has risen from 53 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2015 and is still increasing. When coupled with the worldwide decline in birth rates, this demographic shift has major implications for business. “In this era of longevity,” Deloitte said, “an individual’s career can last far longer, spanning generations of technologies and businesses.”

And yet most companies have so far turned a blind eye to these changing realities. Deloitte found that only 18 percent of U.S. businesses view age as an advantage in their organization. But in today’s employment climate, with a historically tight labor market, companies need to rethink their approach to older workers. Embracing the experience, perspective, and commitment of older professionals can provide a rich source of opportunity — and talent — for companies willing to do so.

Here are four suggestions for companies looking for ways to welcome more seasoned professionals to their workforce: 

1. Build out learning and development programs that close generational skill gaps

While some workers in their 40s have been underemployed for years, others have taken time off from their career to raise a family or care for aging parents. Now they are ready to reenter the workforce. Yet most talent professionals are paying them no heed. Older workers are often perceived as having out-of-date skills and being a potential hurdle for younger talent. 

Instead, hiring managers should look carefully at what older candidates often bring to the table — polished soft skills, institutional knowledge, the experience required to be superb mentors and trainers — and view their professional background as a set of transferable skills instead of expertise within a narrow role. The U.K. government, for example, offers incentives to employers who retain, retrain, and recruit older workers and create a company culture committed to lifelong learning and development. 

General Motors has been doing this with their Take 2 program. GM’s career reentry initiative takes older professionals — ones who’ve been out of the workforce for two or more years — through a 12-week “audition” that prepares them for a second career, with many joining GM full time after the program concludes. This approach supports GM’s growing need for engineers while also closing the skills gap that older workers often face as they return to the workforce. Likewise, CVS Health’s Talent is Ageless program is designed to help older candidates land new opportunities and partners with local colleges to create useful curriculum and training modules.

2. Expand flexible work options to include shorter work weeks as well as opportunities for remote work

Workplace flexibility is one of the top trends identified in LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, with 72 percent of talent professionals surveyed agreeing that flexibility is extremely important in shaping the future of recruiting and talent. And while it’s the millennial generation that’s most often associated with flex work, alternative schedules and remote work options can be exactly what older employees need too. A research team led by Christopher Tonetti from the Stanford business school determined that the majority (60%) of U.S. retirees would prefer to be back at work if they could find a job with some degree of flexibility.

For example, the French tire maker Michelin provides white-collar workers with a transitional work program. Rather than completely exiting the workforce at retirement age, older employees can stretch out their careers by reducing hours over time. This not only helps them ease their own transition from work to retirement but also provides the company with an opportunity to leverage their experience and impart that knowledge to the next generation. 

In an effort to retain older workers, CVS developed a “snowbird” program in which hundreds of pharmacists and other employees from states in the northern U.S. are able to transfer to drugstores in Florida and other warmer states each winter. They’ve truly redefined “remote” work.

3. Design workplaces that have older workers in mind

Flexibility can also mean physical alterations that make the work environment a more comfortable and productive place for older populations. BMW reconfigured its auto plants in Germany and elsewhere by setting up easier-to-read computer screens, providing ergonomic chairs for assembly-line workers, and adding recreation areas equipped with mats and wall bars that encourage stretching and relaxation. 

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Related: Older Professionals Often Face Discrimination at Work — Here's Why Your Company Should Change That

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In addition to ergonomic swivel chairs, rival carmaker Porsche has also equipped some workers the “exoskeletons,” lightweight metal structures that attach to a person’s arm and provide support for repeated lifting.

4. Make reciprocal mentorship a workplace norm

Seventy percent of high-performing professionals attribute their success to a mentor. A reciprocal mentorship program, in which employees from different generations mentor one another, can boost the power of a multigen team and reduce the potential conflicts arising from generational misunderstandings and stereotypes. 

SAP’s Mature Talents program is geared toward supporting cooperation and attentive management in mixed-age teams. Called tandem mentoring, it’s a two-way relationship between experienced employees and younger coworkers with a focus on both generations learning from one another.

“The response from the younger employees was very positive,” says Martin Kühn, who helped spearhead the effort, “and the more mature colleagues were even more enthusiastic. They told us that they found it invigorating to work more closely with younger people, to gain new perspectives, and to pass on the fruits of their experience. For their part, the younger colleagues enjoyed the opportunity to learn from their elders, to discover the background to many situations, and to extend their networks.”

Annice Joseph, the global lead for Cross-Generational Intelligence at SAP, says such efforts are critical because they have real bottom-line impact. She points to recent research that found that multigenerational work teams make better decisions than teams that lean completely young or old.

As workers stave off retirement and stay in the workforce for longer periods of time, companies will need to figure out how to leverage the possibilities of an older talent pool. This will likely entail rethinking their training and mentorship programs, their workspaces, and their flexible work options. Just like the experienced workers they will increasingly rely on, companies will have to be prepared for continuous learning and reinvention to remain successful.

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*Photo by General Motors

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