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  • 26 May 2015
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Why we should embrace the older workforce

A recent UK Government survey revealed that more a million people over 50 are struggling to find employment. Yet, as Chartered psychologist, Dr Lynda Shaw argues, employers are missing the opportunity to upskill their older workers. 

There is a huge prejudice against older people at work, partly because of the notion that job performance declines with age. This idea has been around for many years and research shows that this has no basis in truth. 

For instance, older workers are more loyal to their employers and less likely to leave than younger people, thus saving money in recruitment and initial training costs. It can be argued however, that they may take more sick leave but voluntary absence is greater in younger workers, and research has shown there is no difference between the mature and young in terms of excused absence. In fact, accidents at work are more common in younger workers, though admittedly, older people can take longer to recover. 

There are strengths and weaknesses of all age groups. An example of this is an American hotel group which couldn’t recruit enough younger people to handle telephone reservations in a call centre. As a consequence, they widened their recruitment programme and appointed older people as well. 

Productivity comparisons were subsequently made between those above 50 years of age and those below. Results showed that those over 50 were slower and their telephone conversations with prospective clients took longer than their younger colleagues. 

However, they were more successful in turning those prospects into paying customers. The younger employees were quicker at picking up the calls and conducted faster conversations, but they were less likely to secure a reservation. 

Of course, if this were physical work we may see younger people more successful than older people, but the nature of work these days is far less physical than it used to be, so any age related physical decline is no longer an issue for those continuing employment into later years. 

In actual fact, we are witnessing a revolution in attitudes to work. We all know that people are living way past traditional retirement age which is straining inadequate pension funds. This means that many will have to keep working and contributing (if they want to). This isn’t just for financial reasons. Everyone needs to feel valued and valid and we all want to remain autonomous for as long as possible. Employers can reap huge rewards by supporting all their staff and helping them to feel good about their daily efforts at work. 

Through encouragement and appreciation, employees will give 100% because all those wonderful brain chemicals will be in the best possible state and encourage the individual to seek more praise by doing the best they can. 

This will involve companies implementing training programmes for all age groups. Everyone needs to be kept up-to-date with the speed in which work evolves and technology changes. 

It is a sad fact however, that many companies only train younger people, while those of middle working years and older are left to develop by their own volition or change jobs to further their career. This is indeed short sighted and fraught with missed opportunity for all concerned. As technology moves on and markets evolve, we must be mindful that regardless of age, everyone is capable of learning. 

Older people may be a little slower to pick up new things, but this doesn’t mean to say they can’t. It is in everyone’s interest to employ a little more patience and build confidence in those that need a bit more time to absorb something new. 

Even those who experience healthy ageing may notice a change in perceptual speed; working memory and episodic memory and adjustments are needed to accommodate these changes. The good news however, is that performance on higher order skills such as at work and normal everyday behaviour is often maintained extremely well, even for the very elderly. 

For instance, crystalized intelligence includes expertise such as knowledge of vocabulary, wisdom and experience has been shown to be greater in older people compared to the young. However, research shows that another form of intelligence, known as ‘fluid intelligence’ can be impaired with age. This includes recognising links in unfamiliar patterns, which is why it is important to continue learning something new and challenging our brains. 

There is no doubt that we are seeing an increase in older people at work. Companies that do not embrace this will lose out on a valuable source of staff input for all the obvious reasons such as experience, loyalty and mentoring the young etc., especially when training and support is provided. 

But there is another point to consider - there are companies out there who are already benefiting from their older workforce. Those companies that do not follow this trend will find that their younger staff will not relate so well to customers and clients who are older. Business relationships may suffer if we do not employ a cross section of age groups. 

There is one last point to make here. The word retirement needs to be redefined. If we replaced it with flexible retirement, we can benefit from a new army of older people who may wish to work one or two days a week, one week a month or just for a project that could last three months. 

This is efficient because the individual can pursue other activities outside of work and enjoy a life/work balance whilst earning money. The company can benefit, as they will enjoy experience and expertise when they need that particular type of input. 

There are many ways we can accommodate and prosper from our older workforce. We just need to think slightly differently and employ flexibility.