How to benefit from ageing workforce which does not retire early

16 March 2018

With the UK’s population now living longer, employees are extending their working lives beyond the traditional retirement age. In fact, nearly four in ten people believe that they will never fully retire. David Willett, corporate director at the Open University, reflects on this, asking the question – how can we truly benefit from an ageing workforce?

An analysis of labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that the number of over-50s in the workforce has increased by 17% in the past five years alone; as the nation continues to age with limited financial support from the UK Government, one can only assume that this figure will continue to rise. These factors mean that there is an urgent need for organisations to get to grips with how to get the best out of a workforce that is made up of vastly different age groups and experience levels, which will soon become the new ‘normal’.

Challenging stereotypes through experience and guidance

Sadly, the view that older workers are slower, less productive and do not contribute as much to the workplace still persists among some employers. This out-dated view completely fails to recognise the many benefits that older, more experienced workers bring to employers, and particularly to the younger colleagues they work with. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, there are numerous benefits to having employees from a variety of age groups working together, including having different perspectives, bringing in new ideas and improving problem solving.

The UK is currently in the grips of a chronic talent shortage, with employers across the country admitting that they are struggling to find new recruits with the skills they need to drive their organisation forward.

By accommodating older workers, employers can gain from their wealth of knowledge and experience, particularly if they have been with the organisation for a number of years. An employee who knows the organisation well is likely to be more efficient in their role, and they can pass their knowledge and network connections down to younger workers, which ensures that their skills and wisdom remain long after these workers finally leave the workforce.

The case for investing in older workers

The question that some learning and development, and HR directors might be asking is, “Why invest in older people when they will soon be leaving the workplace? Surely it makes more sense to prioritise investment in training younger employees?” It could be argued that the real question to ask here is: can a workplace afford not to invest in older workers?

With UK-based employees working until later in life, and four in ten people believing that they will never fully retire, there is no longer a prescriptive date for when companies can expect to say goodbye to their older employees. As the workplace changes, there is less certainty about the practices of businesses and employees, so the decision to rule out developing a key segment of the workforce could leave employers vulnerable to future changes.

By not training older workers, employers are not tapping into any of the benefits that they bring, and are effectively creating a ‘bottleneck’ in their organisation where progression and talent development – at all levels – is thwarted. Younger employees are blocked from progressing to roles that are occupied by those who have been in posts a long time – and older workers are trapped in roles, as there is nowhere for them to progress. This in turn, creates a double-edged sword for workplace progression.

Boosting skills at every level of employment

The UK is currently in the grips of a chronic talent shortage, with employers across the country admitting that they are struggling to find new recruits with the skills they need to drive their organisation forward. This fact is a fundamental cause of the UK's lagging productivity, but the UK Government has recognised this and brought in the apprenticeship levy in 2017 to encourage employers in England to invest in skills and training.

Organisations in England may be prioritising apprenticeship training for younger staff members because they believe they will get a better return on investment, as just 11% of those who started an apprenticeship in 2015–16 were aged 45–59 years old, and less than 1% were 60 or over. While younger workers have more years remaining in the workforce, there is no guarantee that they will stay with the organisation longer than their older counterparts. In fact, older workers are traditionally more loyal and likely to stay with their employer – and many may still have another 15–20 working years remaining – while millennials now expect to have at least six employers during their lifetime. By changing their approach, organisations not only gain the skills that they need to become more productive and reduce recruitment costs, but can also re-engage older workers who may need a new and exciting challenge.

Increase employee engagement by making workers feel valued

With a significant majority of workers aged 50 or over believing that there are fewer employment opportunities, many will hold tight in their current jobs, but this could lead to lower productivity and employee engagement, particularly in roles where the day-to-day, monthly or annual tasks can seem repetitive. It is crucial that organisations start focusing on engaging these workers, in order to maintain high organisational performance in the face of a growing ageing workforce.

One of the most effective ways to increase engagement, at any age, is to ensure that workers feel valued. There are many ways to do this, from workplace benefits programmes to offering new opportunities for personal development and work-based training.

Learning new capabilities can be a motivational step-change for older workers, enabling them to take a chance on new approach or to extend their responsibilities. Alternatively, retraining to work in an area of the organisation that needs more highly skilled workers can be refreshing for staff and the company, helping to boost productivity and achieve organisational priorities at the same time.

Room for improvement

Research that was commissioned by the Open University found that 25% of employers believe that apprenticeships are for young people, but access to work-based training should not be limited to those who are at the beginning of their working lives. The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, and higher and degree apprenticeships have increased the opportunity for businesses to build upon the experience of their ageing workforce, bringing their skills up to date and keeping their business agile.

A study conducted by The Sutton Trust found that businesses are making headway from using their learning and development budget for new employees, as well as adding to the skills of their existing workforce. This is an encouraging start for bringing the skills of the entirety of the UK’s workforce up to speed, and making its businesses more competitive with other G7 nations.

There is no reason to wait

The modern workplace relies on varied skills and experiences, as businesses need to adapt to the changing economic and political climate in the UK. People are learning that a job is never done when it comes to skills acquisition and development. While many levy-paying employers may be waiting for apprenticeship standards to be approved in their sector, cross-disciplinary apprenticeship programmes provide the ideal opportunity to develop their existing staff.

The management and digital skills gaps are often on the minds of UK business leaders. A recent Deloitte report discovered that only 20% of senior executives believe that there are enough school leavers and graduates entering the labour market with the digital skills they need, and with technological developments moving at such a rapid rate, it is likely that those who are further on in their career are also lagging behind when it comes to keeping up with digital development. Work-based learning enables employers to keep their loyal workforce up to date with technological changes, while benefitting from their knowledge, experience and expertise.

Work-based learning enables employers to keep their loyal workforce up to date with technological changes, while benefiting from their knowledge, experience and expertise.

The UK has previously been branded as a nation of ‘accidental managers’, with those who excel in their field being promoted to a leadership position without demonstrating that they have the skills to take on such a responsibility. Older workers have years of experience, but may benefit from specific leadership training to help them get the most out of their team, and to drive the organisation forward. With new degree apprenticeships in management and leadership, there are opportunities for employers to use their levy investment to improve management within their business.

Embracing lifelong learning

Competition for highly skilled workers is expected to grow following the UK's exit from the EU. Employers must prioritise investing in building the skills that their organisation needs from workers by ensuring that all employees, whatever their age, have the skill sets required to adapt to a changing political, economic and technological environment. This is crucial for boosting productivity and organisational performance, but companies must also find new ways of keeping older workers engaged throughout the course of their careers. The value that mature workers offer in helping others to learn, and bringing their experience to new situations, must not be underestimated.

It is important that older workers are challenged in their workplace.