When most leaders speak of challenges in finding the right talent, there’s a greater than average chance that they’re really talking about digital skills. It’s understandable: we operate in a digital world, where the ability to create the sort of experiences that keep customers returning and employees engaged is increasingly reliant on an organisation’s ability to deploy new apps and services, based on leading technology.
But there’s a subtext to this discussion, one that’s unspoken but very prominent: that the skills needed are often the preserve of so-called young people. Based on technology, which those newer to the workforce grew up with, these capabilities are highly prized and, if they can’t be obtained through hiring, can be developed through training programmes.
Yet while there is certainly appetite for employers to provide up and re-skilling support, it is a benefit that is highly valued across all demographics. According to a Gallup study, more than half (57%) of all workers say they are “extremely” or “very” interested in participating in upskilling programmes, and that runs across multiple demographics, a proportion that doesn’t change dramatically when the focus is on older staff. In fact, just four per cent (53%) less of those aged 55 and above view upskilling as “very” or “extremely” important.
And yet it is the latter that are rapidly exiting in the workforce. There are in excess of 200,000 fewer over-50s in the UK workforce now compared to pre-pandemic. This Grey Resignation represents a huge loss of talent that cannot be easily replaced, but it is one that, in the most part, businesses are in danger of overlooking before it is too late.
Grey Resignation risks
Why can’t it be easily replaced? Because so much of it is founded in deep-rooted experience and knowledge that is not easily collated and shared in formal workflows. Some industries have been struggling with this brain drain for a number of years, and even those at the forefront of innovation, such as technology, losing the few people that understand how legacy systems work can be a blocker on progress.
Of course, losing inherent knowledge is always a concern whenever a person leaves. When it is a whole demographic that heads for the door, it has the potential to be catastrophic, both for the employer in question and the wider ecosystem. Relationships between customers and suppliers can start to break down as all the informal workarounds, the bonds built up over time, disappear in an instant. These are intangible and hard to identify, let alone track, but they are a key part of commercial success and so they must be protected.
Protecting against such a loss must be a priority. Years of lived experience; confidence in their own ability; a healthy dose of perspective – these attributes are vital to an effective workforce and leaders disregard them at their peril. It is imperative that this exodus is halted. The question is, how?
What’s pushing out older workers?
First, it’s important to understand the drivers behind the grey resignation. Some are similar to those driving the Great Resignation: a pandemic-prompted realisation that the old ways of working do not fit with modern life, or what they, as individuals, want to get out of work.
It is too simple to say that older workers may have been more resistant to remote working pre-pandemic, but the fact is that whatever their preconceptions before 2020, like every other demographic they have been exposed to new approaches. For some, it will have been a blip; others may well have found that remote or hybrid working suits them better.
This could be particularly true for the ‘sandwich generation’, the cohort that has had to balance demanding careers with caring for both elderly parents and helping with young grandchildren. The door to a more balanced way of life has been opened and people do not want to move backwards.
Others have felt forced out by changes in management and a need to cut costs during lockdowns: voluntary redundancies and early retirements were common options during this time of urgent fiscal prudence, with many older workers reporting anecdotally that they felt under pressure to leave the workforce while their younger colleagues were put on furlough.
These are broad insights. There will be variation between sectors and, indeed, between companies themselves. As such employers will need to proactively gather information to build a clear picture of what the specific drivers are that makes it hard for them to retain experienced talent.
Personalise to retain
Once an organisation identifies what is pushing senior employees out, they can start to develop a prevention plan. This will require a step change for many, as even the most advanced of retention systems can often assume that every employee is motivated by the same factors. This can’t even be applied to specific grades or levels; in some employers, a graduate of 23 can be technically the same level as a lifer of 55.
This means businesses recognise that one size doesn’t fit all. Renumeration offerings need to appeal to all ages, embedded with a degree of personalisation, whether that’s prescribed or for the employee to tailor to their own needs. Some will want more of the traditional benefits like income protection, pensions, life insurance, private medical and dental plans and so on, but even then, new innovations that recognise the changing nature of life can be a differentiator. Grandparent leave is one example of a new concept that acknowledges the challenges faced by the aforementioned ‘sandwich generation’.
It’s important that managers don’t simply implement major policies, such as hybrid working or annual leave, across the board, with no tailoring for different employee segments. Truly modern workforce management requires flexibility and personalisation of the employee experience. People’s preferences and needs should be considered, with managers taking care to ensure that employees feel supported and valued, whatever their role and age.
Being willing to investigate and deploy different models of working, whether that’s moving people to more of a part-time or even consultant-style role, or introducing more flexibility around start and end times, can help keep older workers in employment.
Combatting the Grey Resignation
Some businesses will already have a good understanding of what’s driving out their experienced employees, but for many the mass exits may be something of a shock. To combat the Grey Resignation, organisations need to prioritise what’s happening on the ground and implement a plan to address the issues that prioritises tailored approaches and personalisation, before it’s too late.