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Old prejudices

“Older workers hold the key to driving the economy forward”. That is according to Pensions Minister, Steve Webb – but is he right? How should organisations react in order to make this step-change in the workplace a positive? Kevin Young, General Manager, Skillsoft EMEA, explores.

Latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the number of UK workers aged between 50 and 64 has risen by nearly two million over the past 15 years. In fact, the Office of National Statistics now estimates that by 2050 the UK population will include 19 million people over 65, many of whom will remain in employment. This influx of older workers is a double-edged sword for organisations. It means they can really capitalise on this highly experienced resource, but now need to manage the development of a diverse workforce of both younger people, trained from the grass roots up, and now more experienced workers, who are desperate to enhance their skillset.Furthermore, while enabling the older generation to remain in the workplace longer is no doubt a vital step in addressing the current labour shortage, this will only work when accompanied by a change in attitude from organisations.

The problem is that many businesses have an outdated view of older people, assuming they will be elderly and sick, or not as productive as younger workers. However, a study by B&Q found that absenteeism was 39 percent lower among their older employees[1]. Add this to the fact that McDonald’s alone reports a 20 percent higher performance in its outlets where workers over 60 are employed as part of a multi-generational workforce[2], and it’s clear this opinion can no longer stand true.It’s not just misconceptions about the over 60s work ethic that need to be addressed. In today’s difficult job market, concerns have also been raised that an increase in older workers could present a barrier to progression for younger employees. But, in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst younger employees have the enthusiasm and desire to learn, they do not have the experience to guide themselves through the minefield, which is the workplace. Therefore, rather than view the older workforce as an obstacle, organisations should take advantage of a growing diverse workforce, by establishing mentoring programmes led by older staff, who can pass on knowledge and experience to junior members of the team.

Our recent research discovered that less than half of 16-24 year olds (48 percent) feel that their training needs are being met by their employer with many willing to leave the company as a result. Yet, when asked which skills they considered most essential, the list produced was almost entirely personal and behavioural, skills they felt were best learnt through on-the-job training and mentoring. This training could easily be provided through the wealth of knowledge and experience that the older generation possess, so why wouldn’t a business want to retain its older employees? As well as using older workers to educate those around them, it‘s also important that businesses continue to develop their skills. You can’t put an age limit on learning and with new technology emerging daily, the older generation can quickly fall behind.

Too many organisations make the mistake of assuming that older workers have nothing left to learn, but with the realisation that these workers will be on the payroll for longer, businesses can no longer get away with not training this generation and risk a wider skills gap emerging. Our own research has shown that 92 percent of UK CEOs currently don’t invest in training and development for the over 60s. Instead of ignoring this age group, businesses need to take the lead and encourage older workers to enhance their skillset, by offering both a job and training in one package, as they do for the younger generation.

The rise in older workers is nothing new. Changes to the default retirement age, coupled with a decrease in pension funds, has caused figures to rise steadily for the past year. Yet companies still fail to use the wide range of skills and experience these employees possess. Instead of viewing this age group as a HR problem, organisations should instead view the older generation as an opportunity to help enhance and grow their business. The typical UK workplace now includes four separate generations of employees, each of whom can help the other learn and develop. Government is starting to initiate programmes that are aimed at recognising the value of older workers, and it’s time for businesses to take note and not ignore this valuable part of the workforce.



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