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Future Of Ageing: How An Ageing Society Can Boost The Economy

It’s believed that there are around 75 million baby boomers in the United States economy, which Pew Research estimate accounts for around a third of the overall workforce.

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

Much of the narrative around the aging of western societies portrays the considerable economic costs involved.  It’s believed that there are around 75 million baby boomers in the United States economy, which Pew Research estimate accounts for around a third of the overall workforce.  When those people move into retirement, as they all will be sooner rather than later, the hole in the workforce will be enormous.  At least, that’s the prevailing narrative.

As London Business School’s Lynda Gratton highlights, however, this situation needn’t result in a longevity curse, but it does require us to rethink our attitudes towards older workers.  For instance, research from the International Longevity Centre highlights how we typically become more productive as we age, which is a marked contrast to the typical notion of the aging individual as one with declining mental faculties who become a growing burden on society.

For instance, research from the University of Queensland highlights how older people are the brunt of stereotyping in the workplace that feeds into overt discrimination.  This discrimination often sees older people portrayed as technologically incompetent and resistant to change, with these negative stereotypes having a clear impact on their engagement at work, and thus their likelihood of remaining in the workforce past retirement age.

“Older employees who feel they are being stereotyped because of their age report lower job satisfaction and engagement, and poorer workplace wellbeing than their younger counterparts,” the researchers explain.

Research from the University of Kent shows that even subtle discrimination in this way can not only make older workers feel unwelcome at work, but it can have a negative impact on their performance levels.

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Not only are these stereotypes harmful, but they’re largely wrong.  For instance, research from Penn State has found that the most successful entrepreneurs tend to be older, with the ‘peak age’ being around 40.  Similarly, research from Northeastern University shows that high impact scientific research can happen at any time in our careers, and is certainly not the preserve of the young.  The key, the research found, was to maintain our motivation levels as we mature.

Research from the University of Aberdeen shows that maintaining learning throughout our career is vital.  They argue that ‘educational mismatch’ is a phenomenon often explored at the start of our careers, but its impact can endure throughout.

“Like many workers, the job requirements of scientists and engineers are constantly evolving as technology and new methods develop, and so the need to reinvest in training and development is of paramount importance,” the researchers explain.  “If this doesn’t happen then mismatch will become more obvious and will have an impact on workplace satisfaction and lower earnings, which often leads to an employee leaving his or her job.”

They estimate that around 40% of scientists and engineers who had recently retired did so as a result of educational mismatch, which is the kind of brain drain organizations can ill afford to suffer from.

Becoming age ready

Research from New Zealand’s Massey University provides a good start in building a workplace that can continue to engage older workers.  It suggests four factors are especially important: growth in flexible working arrangements; better training for managers to spot and overcome age-related biases; a generally more positive attitude and culture towards older workers; and mentoring schemes between old and young employees.

“According to the OECD, nearly 79 percent of New Zealanders aged 55 to 64 are employed—and supporting older workers to remain at work will only become more important in the future,” the researchers explain.  “When older employees believe their organisation values their wellbeing, they reciprocate with greater effort and commitment in return. Of course the opposite is also true—if they perceive their employer doesn’t particularly support its older workers, they are much more likely to quit.”

A paper from workplace consultancy firm Mercer provides some similar conclusions to the Massey team, but with a few additional tips on building age friendly workplaces.  The paper provides 10 steps organizations can make to become friendlier to their more mature employees:

  1. Collect data on your workforce to understand demographic and skills challenges
  2. Implement clear careers strategies for all employees to avoid any skills gaps
  3. Examine the impact of your retirement planning on the trajectory of retirement readiness
  4. Start conversations with older workers to understand how their work patterns might change
  5. Tackle ageism in the workplace head on, whether in pay, recruitment, promotions or performance
  6. Create a culture of lifelong learning throughout the organization
  7. Do a better job of measuring productivity so you have factual data to hand that can break through stereotypes
  8. Implement a better flexible-working policy
  9. Provide more support for people who have caregiving responsibilities
  10. Develop an inclusive culture that underpins your experienced-worker strategy

“For employers, managing a rapidly growing older workforce is a challenge without precedent,” Mercer says. “In the US rates of working among older individuals have been rising and will continue to rise, with the highest growth rates among those aged 70-74 and 75-79. Given this reality, organizations that are more ‘age-ready’ than their competitors will likely have a significant strategic advantage.”

Older workers can offer so much to our organizations, but for this potential to be maximized, organizations need to change so that they’re welcoming environments for older people.  If they can do this, then the longevity boon Lynda Gratton talks about stands a better chance of being achieved.

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