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Published in Managing For Success Magazine October 2007


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Love the one you're with - how to recognise the business benefits of keeping and developing older employees

by Dianne Bown-Wilson

Where does the future competitive advantage of your firm lie? As a professional services provider, you’d probably quite rightly say ‘our people’, but how much real thought have you given to what your workforce is going to look like in ten or twenty years time?

Undoubtedly it’s going to look considerably different from what it does today. In the next couple of decades we will see the numbers of people working past what we now think of as ‘retirement age’ increasing dramatically, but very few employers are doing much – if anything – to prepare for it.


Currently most firms, regardless of size, will have one or more non-partner employees who are over 50; legal or support staff who have very probably been part of the backbone of the firm for many years and who are now progressing towards retirement. However ‘progressing towards retirement’ often means they are effectively relegated to a ‘holding pen’ situation for their final years where they’re  offered few development opportunities and they themselves feel unmotivated or unwilling to seek change.


Why should this be a problem? After all, people have grown older and then retired throughout history. What’s different now? Well, a number of factors are changing, the most significant being:


The UK birthrate has long been declining, longevity is increasing and within the next seven or eight years the UK population will have more over 65s than under 16s.

In order just to maintain the current level of economic output the Government has estimated that 1.3 million people are needed to enter the workforce, and – immigration and question marks about skills aside – they just aren’t there.

Last year’s Age Discrimination legislation means that individuals now have the right to request to work longer and there is pressure for organisations to scrap the notion of a single, standard ‘retirement age’ altogether.


At the same time, attitudes to employment are changing. Research shows that younger people now primarily adopt a  ‘work to live’ approach to their careers characterised by dipping in and out of the workforce and frequently changing employers as opportunity and circumstance dictate. Generally, they no longer anticipate linking their progress and aspirations to one or a few main employers throughout their working lifetimes.


What all this adds up to is that, whether or not your firm has noticed the impact as yet, there aren’t - and increasingly won’t be - enough skilled young people to go round. Of course, larger and more profitable firms will still be able to attract good candidates through offering levels of remuneration and benefits from an early age which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. But what do you do if you’re not in this fortunate situation?


A flexible approach to retirement


The answer is to hold on to what you’ve got, actively manage and develop older individuals right to the end of their working lives, and recognise the inherent potential in many older job applicants.


At present, in addition to the situation outlined above, research shows that:


Due to sociological change and financial issues, the majority of people over 50 either need or want to keep working in some form, past  traditional ‘retirement age’.They already number over a million and this is expected to treble rapidly.

They want to achieve greater work life balance through working flexibly.

Advances in technology have made worker location less of an issue than in the past, enabling home or remote working, and multi-site working.


However, recent surveys also show that most employers have done little or nothing to change their employment policies and practices.  So,  faced with a choice between ‘more of the same’, full-time, office based working, and retirement, most older workers opt for the latter, even though studies indicate that the majority would be happy to work longer if offered improved flexibility.


As a result, many highly skilled older people still retire completely and abruptly,  taking with them valuable skills and knowledge which firms have done little to extract from them. This can have a huge impact in smaller firms in particular where a few individuals, because of the time they have been with the organisation, are effectively the repository of the firm’s most fundamental knowledge base. When they leave, that knowledge and expertise goes with them and it’s impossible to replace.


Add to this the evidence that older workers are the most committed, satisfied, and engaged sector of the workforce who, as well as being skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable take less time off work than younger people, and the message should be clear. Hold on to these people, work with them to design a working life that meets their needs as well as yours, and you will be repaid many times over through the additional years of expertise, skill and capacity you will be able to retain.


A strategic and managed solution


Of course, all this sounds relatively simple, but how do you deal with those older people who may not want to change and who make it obvious that they are just ‘counting down the years’? And how do you manage other members of staff who may not want to see their comfortable working life disrupted by redeploying a long-standing member of staff elsewhere in the firm?


These and many more problems usually have arisen through insufficiently strong central management and long-term neglect of the needs of the business which has taken second place to  the wants and needs of the individuals in it. The answer is to start now to implement a new approach. There’s plenty of time to introduce changes amongst those who still have a decade or more of working life ahead of them and for both the firm and the individual concerned to reap the benefits.


By taking a more flexible and creative approach to what ‘work’ means for your employees, particularly in their latter years, you can start to achieve a better balance between their aims and ambitions and business needs.  Such an approach involves:


Recognising that the needs and aspirations of each individual are different at each age and stage of working life.

Creating flexible working packages –  in terms of both time and location.

Encouraging continuous learning and development, regardless of age.

Providing  training and support for employees (ideally from an early age) to help them understand and manage work, life and financial planning issues now and for the future.


Doing this will mean thinking strategically, acting differently and being prepared to take a few (minor) risks. In broad brush terms, you will need to rethink:


What skills and knowledge are required in the firm overall regardless of age, seniority, and employment status? Ultimately this may involve developing individuals who operate outside of traditional ‘departmental’ or or ‘functional’ boundaries.


Managing more effectively.  This will probably involve directly and personally engaging, guiding and monitoring all staff to deliver what the firm requires in the most effective way, rather than relying on the benchmark of ‘what we’ve always done’.


Communicating more directly. Individual employees need to be challenged to be open about their needs and intents for their final working years so that you can accommodate these where possible and help them design their ‘best fit’ working life.


Enforcing a rigorous performance management process.  This needs to measure outputs against targets, regularly, fairly and objectively, regardless of an employee’s age, status, hours worked, or seniority of position or service.


This will take time and considerable effort, but it will be worth it. Any firm - large or small - which efficiently and effectively uses the strengths and skills of its workers throughout their entire working life whilst taking steps to increase the length of their careers will, in the future, stay ahead of the game.