Your age at work: just another number

The popularly-held notion that intergenerational differences create clashes in the workplace does not stand up to proper scrutiny.

New research shows the secret to creating an age-friendly workplace is to take age out of the equation.

Employers are looking to science to solve a growing problem: how to attract and retain older workers.

They can start by taking an “age neutral” approach when developing workplace policy, says Professor Philip Taylor, director of the Australian Retirement Research Institute at Federation University Australia.

Age is unrelated to job performance, he says. “There's very little evidence to support the notion that older workers perform better than younger workers or younger workers perform better than older workers.”

Taylor’s research debunks myths around workplace and age in two recent reports he has co-authored examining the role of older workers: Retaining Australian Older Workers: A Literature Review, produced as part of the CSIRO-Monash Superannuation Research Cluster, and What’s Age Got to Do with It? Towards a New Advocacy on Ageing and Work, published by think tank Per Capita.

Age differences and workplace friction

The popularly-held notion that intergenerational differences create clashes in the workplace does not stand up to proper scrutiny. “There’s a tendency to talk about generational warfare, but that’s far from an accurate perception,” says Taylor.

Nor are older workers a homogenous group; age intersects with other factors such as industry, gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality and place of birth to create subgroups of workers with diverse needs.

With so much variation within age groups, the Per Capita report warns there is little to gain by implementing blanket policies based on age. 

“Organisations need to be cautious in implementing strategies that emphasise the supposed unique values and characteristics of different generations rather than applying general strategies to all employees.”

How to attract older workers

Strategies to attract older workers can be as simple as using age-neutral language in recruitment advertisements and offering entry-level positions to people of retirement age.

UK report Fulfilling work: what do older workers value about work and why? identifies health as the most important factor determining if someone continues to work. 

Workplace adjustments and a culture that promotes flexible options such as blended work, bridge employment, phased or partial retirement, and re-entry can help extend an employee’s working life, finds Taylor’s literature review.

Rosemary Guyatt, HR Manager with the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), recommends conducting pre-retirement interviews to find out if an employee wants to continue contributing after full-time work has ended. “The evidence we’ve found is that often they’re happy to take on project work or continue on in a mentoring or advisory way,” she says.

Overcoming stereotypes to create an age-friendly culture

Taylor’s review of literature shows that retaining older workers also relies on creating an age-friendly organisational culture that promotes and values the contribution of people of all ages.

It’s often falsely believed that ageing workforces have low productivity and high labour costs.

Inflexibility and technological incompetence are other damaging stereotypes associated with older workers.

Seemingly positive stereotypes may also work against older workers. The Per Capita report noted that “experienced” staff may miss out on the training they need to protect their knowledge from becoming obsolete.

Older workers are often associated with soft skills that are less valued by employers, which may see them installed in lower status roles that in turn impact their engagement.

“One of major drivers of older people exiting the workforce is a perception that the jobs they’re in are not of sufficient quality,” says Taylor.

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Make work meaningful

Meaningful work is crucial to keeping older workers in the workforce. Those in roles with high levels of complexity and control report better engagement than those in more limited roles.

In The Oxford Handbook of Work and Aging, Cheryl Paullin and Deborah L. Whetzel suggest that one of the easiest and least expensive retention strategies is simply asking older workers to stay on and emphasising the value of their contribution to the organisation.

Leaders and managers are important too. A 2011 study showed that older workers who feel supported and valued by their line managers were less inclined to opt for early retirement.

Adequate training and resources should be provided to managers to ensure they have the capacity to support and encourage older workers. 

How reskilling boosts workplace retention

Training is critical for older workers; research shows it increases their working lives and makes employment more rewarding.

To stay competitive, we have to keep learning, says Guyatt. In a digital age defined by constant change, we need to be more curious, more open to innovation and be prepared to experiment.

Automation poses a disproportionate threat to older workers. The Per Capita report estimates that up to two and a half million older Australian workers could be redundant by 2031. “Not only will they be out of work but their skills will be outdated.”

However the report also cites evidence that older workers are less likely to be offered training “due in part to a perception that it is a less worthwhile investment when compared to training a younger worker”.

The stereotype that old workers can’t learn new skills, or don’t want to, does not hold up, according to Taylor’s research. Older workers can learn as well as younger workers as long as the training suits their development needs and learning styles, and considers their existing knowledge and skills.

Lifelong learning needs to become a reality, says Taylor. “Many people leave school and then do precious little training again. We need to be preparing people to re-tool over a career.”

Read next: Fighting ageism: the often overlooked benefits of older workers

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October 2021
October 2021

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