Current employment trends and policy changes are likely to reshape the age demographics of Britain’s future workforce. How can employers take advantage of age diversity in the workplace?
A simple truth is that companies with a diverse workforce perform much better than those without. Older employees will come with the benefit of experience, having been there and done it, while their younger counterparts can bring in fresh perspectives and innovative ideas.
It can provide businesses with the opportunity to reach a wider customer base as their worker bees can relate to, and understand multiple generations: younger employees, bang on trend with all things social, will easily connect to the market in this way, while older workers will often identify with an altogether different demographic. Tapping into and recruiting diverse talent is one thing but getting the best out of employees will involve understanding their motivational and working preferences.
According to research from the CEB, the member-based advisory company, the strongest motivational factors for individuals born between the 1980s and 2000s – Generation Y – are competition, progression and personal growth.
“To keep this demographic engaged, companies need to facilitate sustained career progression and provide development opportunities that enable them to advance to a more senior level in the workplace,” advises Nick Shaw, consulting director at CEB. This is in contrast with the baby boomers (1940s to early 1960s) who are more driven by autonomy, power and personal principles.
Gen Y also tend to be self-starting, entrepreneurial and keen to make a rapid impact. They are eager to be given responsibilities early and want to see their contributions making an impact. However, Shaw warns that they may initially struggle to cope with pressure and setbacks at work. Therefore, organisations need to provide the support required to nurture this cohort.
Focusing on one age group, however, can mean that companies are in danger of missing significant and valuable channels of ideas, creativity and innovation. “The key challenge for employers will be to ensure [proper] managerial practice,” comments Shaw. “Handling diversity is a critical competency for line managers, [who] will need to be given the flexibility to empower individuals and translate an understanding of what motivates different people into practical ways of recognising their contribution that works for every employee.”
One possible route to take is to ask employees what they’re looking for and what they want. Those approaching retirement age who want to carry on working will often have different motivational factors other than money such as social interaction, continued stimulation and development, as well as passing on knowledge to future generations.
“Knowledge transfer is a key element,” says Julie Windsor, director at Talentia Software UK, the software company. “This can be providing mentoring, coaching or work-shadowing opportunities, and it can be fulfilling for older employees.”
However, it doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Companies should also consider reverse mentoring where the younger employees can mentor older ones in areas within the business such as new technologies. “Everyone has to believe they’re making a contribution,” Windsor adds. “Employers have an obligation within the business to make sure that their employees are successful and making a valuable contribution.”
Mismanaging age diversity means that companies run the risk of disengaging the workforce, which can negatively impact their productivity and business performance. While the key to keeping Gen Y engaged is through setting expectations around promotion opportunities and greater responsibilities along their career path, this can prove quite troublesome for SMEs.
“Keeping younger talent, which is hungry to learn and compete for opportunities, energised and engaged is the singular challenge organisations will face,” says Shaw. “Since any organisation will only have so many senior positions open at any one time, reframing what career progression means has become a critical must-do for talent managers.”
Claire McCartney, adviser on resourcing and talent planning at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that SMEs should be thinking creatively about the development opportunities that they can offer to their workers. “It might not be a promotion in terms of a financial promotion up a ladder, but it could be a step sideways to working in a different part of the business,” she comments. “An employee within an entrepreneurial SME would relish the opportunity to work in areas they wouldn’t be able to within significantly larger organisations.”
Shaw believes that through a flexible approach to employee engagement, and understanding and accommodating generational differences in job motivation and career development, employers are able to invest in the younger generation without alienating boomers who may already hold senior positions.
There’s a lot for SMEs to consider in being objective and fair with regards to providing equal employment opportunities across the board. “It’s challenging for SMEs because we’re not talking about huge workforces,” Windsor empathises. “First and foremost, it’s always going to be about having the right people in the right positions to deliver for our business.”
If we take a step back to the job search or application stage, there are factors that may obstruct a candidate gaining employment in the first place. For example, people in their 50s may be ruled out and not progress past the application stage because assumptions are made. The commentators agree that a fundamental change in employers’ mindsets is vital.
“From an employer’s perspective, there tends to be an assumption that more experienced people who have been successful in their careers to date will be looking at a significantly higher salary than younger people,” Windsor explains. “There is a challenge to meet salary expectations and to re-develop people if they’re changing direction in their career. And the balance in terms of salary structures has perhaps been considered to be prohibitive.”
Perceptions that mature workers ‘slow down’ as they get older is another unfounded setback for the older generation. “Our employee outlooks research (survey of employees’ attitude to working life) found that older employees are most engaged, most satisfied and most willing to go the extra mile at work,” says McCartney. “Their productivity might well be as great as or higher than some of the other age groups. We need to tackle some of those negative stereotypes that aren’t really founded upon on the objective situation as it appears in the workplace.”
So what can employers do to tackle and invalidate some of these stereotypes?
Shaw says that organisations with more granular and talent-focused data across their workforce are those that will have the capability to move beyond stereotypes to a more effective management of the acquisition, development and retention of the talent that all generations offer.
“Rather than relying solely on subjective candidate information, organisations should adopt objective talent assessment as part of a systematic process to selecting the right people for roles today and identifying talent that is most likely to succeed in more senior roles tomorrow,” he adds.
McCartney believes that people are already acknowledging the advantages of age-diversity in the workplace but organisations need to be more proactive. “Small businesses are not thinking about age diversity issues now, but we know that the workplace demographics are shifting and the pace of change is going to speed up immensely,” she warns. “Organisations, businesses, and entrepreneurs need to be forward thinking in this area, and really think about what we can do to bring in and retain the best age-diverse talent now and in the future.”