Older and younger generations at work

Written by
Gary Miles

18 Dec 2015

18 Dec 2015 • by Gary Miles

Nurturing both your older and younger talent

There is a record number of over-65s in the workplace, according to the Office for National Statistics-demonstrating very clearly that the impact of the recent economic crisis means that many of us will be working well into our 60s and beyond. This number will increase over the next 10-15 years as younger generations squeezed by burdens of housing, university education fees and a generally higher cost of living will realise to guarantee a decent income in their retirement years that they will need to delay the decision to give up full-time work. But while working for longer for some may be a depressing thought, if economic circumstances mean your planned and hoped for retirement is a little further away, for others they will thrive on feeling they still have something to offer the workplace and gain great energy from continuing their contribution to the success of enterprises.

The challenge for many organisations is how to capitalise on the asset of such a group of people and harness their skills and knowledge to benefit other generations in the business and ultimately the business itself. For older workers are a huge asset  not only because they are highly experienced but because they come with wisdom that is invaluable for younger generations looking to develop that gravitas for themselves as they make their way in corporate life. But we cannot forget that as we grow older our energy levels change and this can be difficult to manage within the demands of the modern day workplace. For older workers, finding a role that is fulfilling and comes at a pace they can handle can also be difficult in today’s climate when competition for jobs is fierce.

How can you help?

So how can HR meet the needs of older workers and support them in using their expertise and knowledge effectively in order to pass on their wisdom to the next generation? What can they do to harness this talented segment of the workforce? 

•    Firstly ensure that this group of people are included and embedded in the company’s talent management plans and strategy. Talent management programmes usually cater for the few high-potentials rather than the majority of employees and especially those at the end of their careers. 

•    Give older employees opportunities to refresh their leadership development skills, if these are still needed in their role or to take part in other specialist development programmes on offer to younger counterparts

•    Think of coaching and mentoring opportunities that can be exploited at little cost to tap into the knowledge and experience of your older workers- being a coach to those  who are rising up the organisation yet still  developing their interpersonal, leadership or political skills can give older employees a real 'buzz' and positively develop the next cadre of future leaders and talented specialists.

•    Encourage story-telling as a development avenue within the business and facilitate opportunities for experienced employees to share their stories about previous successes in the business and where they have learnt from failure. These sessions could be shared over a learning lunch or at the end of the day over some drinks where different generations come together to help shape the future culture of their organisation by learning from the past.

•    Appreciate that to harness this important segment of the workforce it is vital to sell the benefits of flexible working within the organisation to senior management so that you can engage your older employees in a way that feels right for them given many do not wish to work full-time but enjoy often a vision of a portfolio career as described by Charles Handy many years ago – where they have the chance to have the best of both worlds-paid and fulfilling work and rewarding voluntary work maybe of  a non-executive director nature.

Reverse mentoring

But this is also a two-way street. Those organisations who are more enlightened and are looking to maximise the benefit of having four generations in the workforce working alongside each other-Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Millennials will also look to introduce mechanisms that help older employees to gain from the experience of their younger colleagues. While we wish to encourage collaboration across generations we know there may be potential tensions between age groups. Therefore HR can help avoid this by encouraging a culture of Reverse Mentoring for example where younger employees mentor their older colleagues, perhaps on technology or use of social media which is a simple way of getting generations to work together. It is important to emphasise moreover that those who are more recent to the organisation have a different perspective on its culture and can bring a different kind of wisdom to those who have been imbued with the idiosyncrasies of their companies for some time.

Roffey Park has carried out extensive research looking at managing talent across the generations. The working styles of different generations are fascinating in themselves. Boomers prefer sharing of wisdom and a collective mind set while Gen Y like an innovative, individualistic and fast-paced work environment. We can see already the  need for both to  talk and learn from each other so that the organisation can benefit from having the blending of these work-styles .Here are some actions for HR and senior leaders to consider when looking to harness the talent from older employees and maximise cross-generational collaboration:

  • Undertake a generational audit to really understand the mix in your workforce
  • Think about the overall psychological contract from each generational perspective and work to address any concerns
  • Ensure there are a wide number of opportunities for cross-generational learning
  • Ensure your leaders are equipped to be generationally in tune with a 4 G Workforce

Finally accept that the reason for generational differences is that people born in the same era generations share distinct Generational Sign Posts and Life Laws which influence what they think and how they behave, It is the valuing of that diversity and the creation of the synergy that comes from these differences that will give your organisation an upper hand over your competitors- so grasp that nettle now!