We all understand the population is ageing, and while comments by treasurer Joe Hockey that the first person to live to 150 may have already been born attracted some derision, it should come as no surprise. What is less easy to understand is the curious paradox that, as the workforce ages, the age at which workers are being labelled by organisations and recruiters as “old” is getting younger.
The way that many organisations and those recruiting for organisations construct old age is very different to the way that the authors of the soon-to-be-released Intergenerational Report are likely to construct older age. Our research into the management of age in organisations has found overwhelmingly that employees over the age of 45 self-identify as older. Further, there is a general sense amongst organisational decision makers that if you haven’t “made it” by the age of 40 you aren’t going to “make it” at all.
Declaring that you must have made it by 40 not only ignores the huge potential of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, but it also doesn’t account for the fact that many women and men are ready to hit their stride in their 50s. Relieved of the heavy lifting responsibilities of parenting, they are able to devote themselves to their careers and to their employers.
Some companies have managed to see this potential and are beginning to think creatively about what having an older workforce profile means and how they can leverage its opportunities for increased productivity and innovation.
The advent of the corporation in the early and mid-twentieth century created a prototypical career/life cycle in which youth meant education, adulthood meant work and old age meant retirement. This may have served bureaucratic corporations of the past because it provided order and calculability to those who passed through it.
However, it is an out-dated way of thinking for the modern corporation Much of the discourse in the lead-up to the release of the Intergenerational Report pits old against young. Older people are constructed as an economic burden and younger people as resentful and angry. Yet our research into intergenerational relations in organisations found high levels of respect between younger and older people.
In particular, we found that younger employees greatly respected the knowledge and resilience that their older co-workers brought to their work. As the workforce ages and people stay in work longer, there is a huge opportunity to capitalise on the diversity of ideas, customer segments and product markets that an intergenerational workforce can open up to an organisation. Our research with a global engineering firm showed that the most innovative divisions were the ones in which teams were configured to include a broad range of ages, from new graduates to experienced workers over the age of 65. Respondents reporting learning from one another, and the shared experience flowed both ways. In these teams, the notion of experience wasn’t limited to time served, nor was it seen to expire once people had reached a certain age.
Words do matter. The way that we talk about age in organisations affects both internal employee engagement and also recruitment strategies. Those older and younger than the magic age of 35 to 45 often receive an unintended but powerful message that they have less to contribute to the organisation, and report lower levels of workplace engagement as a result. The language organisations use in their general marketing and specifically in their recruitment can send unintended signals that those over 45 need not apply.
One organisation we worked with wanted to recruit people 45 and older but was having trouble attracting candidates. We could show them that the wording of their job advertisements, “join a vibrant team that works hard and plays hard” and “working space is fresh and funky” was unintentionally signalling that older candidates were not welcome. We encouraged them to highlight aspects of the job that are most important to older workers: recognition of skills, work and life experience; the culture and values of the organisation; and the opportunity to learn new things. This last one is important because it is perhaps the most pervasive yet blatantly false stereotype about ageing. We don’t stop wanting to learn new things as we age.
If the fourth Intergenerational Report is to have the impact that the government, policy makers and employees of all ages are hoping it will, then it is business that needs to take the lead in re-imagining careers, shifting to an age-inclusive culture and establishing the organisational structures whereby employees of all generations can work with, for and alongside one another. Our prosperity and productivity as a nation relies on it.