How to maximise the talents of older workers


Leadership and management skills are likely to be in short supply in the UK workforce in the not-too-distant future. But a valuable source of potential leaders – those aged over 50 – is being over-looked and under-utilised by employers thanks to ingrained, negative attitudes towards older workers.

Added on 06 July 2015 by Carina Paine Schofield

Older worker engaging with collegues

Government figures suggest that an estimated 13.5 million jobs will be created in the UK over the next ten years – but that there will only be a projected seven million young people available to fill those roles. It all adds up to a serious skills gap for organisations, which is likely to be particularly acute in the essential area of leadership and management.

The abolition of the default retirement age, changes to the state pension and a general increase in life expectancy means that over 50s are likely to remain in employment for much longer than before. These more mature employees often possess the skills, experience and loyalty needed to flourish in a leadership position. But they are frequently overlooked for promotion to more senior roles because of perceptions that their skills will be out-of-date and they are no longer likely to be interested in progressing their careers.

If organisations are to cope with the challenges of constantly changing markets and remain competitive, they need to undergo a major shift in mindset – and start to think more creatively about how they can take full advantage of the benefits of an age-diverse workforce.

So what action can employers take to adapt to changing workforce demographics and realise the potential of workers of all ages?

1. Give experience a name and status

Experience is very often invisible until it is lost to the business when someone retires or leaves, taking valuable organisational memory and knowledge with them. It is also often ignored or not sufficiently recognised as a critical tool. It’s typical to find in an organisation, for example, that managers are not rewarded as highly for passing on experience as they are for hitting their quarterly targets.

Make ‘sharing experience’ a significant part of the way performance is measured and ensure the experience and skills of older workers are recognised and respected by new line managers. Formalise the opportunity for experienced workers to share their knowledge – the problem with informal methods is that they are often undervalued, dismissed as ‘reminiscing’ or seen as a barrier to new thinking and so ignored.

2. Emphasise the value of listening, teaching and learning

Make consistent efforts to increase experience transfer between the generations.

Brown bag lunches, knowledge sharing sessions and internal workshops are all great ways to give younger workers access to the experience of their older colleagues.

Mentoring partnerships are another great way to pass on experience across different countries, regions and generations – as are job shadowing opportunities between older and younger staff.

Try to develop a culture where learning from each other is celebrated. Look for good examples of cross-generational working and publicise them across the business.  

3. Recognise that retirement is a journey

 A more flexible and phased approach to retirement has benefits for both the individual and the organisation. Many companies, however, are reluctant to have open discussions about retirement with individual workers, for fear of opening themselves up to claims of discrimination. Creating an environment where people are not retired but remain connected to the organisation as a valuable alumnus group can help people make a less stressful transition into retirement and will ensure key skills and valuable company knowledge is not lost. 

4. Reap the benefits of training older workers

Anecdotal evidence shows that older workers stay with an organisation longer than their younger counterparts – but the perception is that young people receive all of the training. Investing in development for managers over 50 means you will be likely to retain that talent even longer. Steer away from one-size-fits-all training which may be frustrating and irrelevant for more experienced workers. Development specifically tailored to the needs of over 50s is likely to be the most useful – coaching, action learning and reverse mentoring are all approaches which can be used successfully.

5. Challenge outdated attitudes and language towards age

Challenge any negative perceptions of over 50s among younger employees and leadership teams – as these can present real obstacles to older workers achieving their full potential. Encourage the use of new terminology – replace the word ‘old’ with ‘experienced’ for example, and avoid language that only associates talent and aspiration with youth. Highlight your ‘experienced workforce’ as a positive feature in your external communications.

 6. Appreciate that everyone can keep learning

Not everyone ages in the same way, and our brains don’t either. Although some aspects of memory and processing change as people get older, age is no inhibitor to learning new skills – indeed engaging in learning ensures capability is maintained. Develop your knowledge of generational learning styles and make sure you are providing training and development that suits people across the spectrum. Make sure development doesn’t just focus on skills (i.e. technology) but also focuses on how older workers can develop while also helping the organisation progress.

7. Recognise that flexibility is for everyone

Flexibility can benefit everyone in the organisation – so make sure the way you talk about flexible working doesn’t suggest it is only the domain of younger working parents. Recognise that flexibility is a desirable option for managers at many different stages of their career – and for many different reasons. Make sure the organisation is reaping the benefits of a flexible workforce – which can range from reduced office footprint to more engaged, motivated and productive employees.

Find out more in Attract Grow Engage: Optimising the Talents of an age-diverse workforce, a new guide from Ashridge and the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM).

Ashridge conducts research into all of the generations in today’s workforce. See our latest research on Gen Y or take part in our survey on Baby Boomers.