The aging workforce – a disappearing asset?

2008

For as long as I can remember, commentators have suggested that all organisations should consider people their "greatest asset". In the boom years of the late 80s and the 90s, this thinking literally translated to "pay people more and we will keep them". But today, despite higher salaries and benefits, we find people change employers quite regularly.

Statistics on change of employer over a working lifetime are hard to come by – estimates range between three and seven. The key point however, is that people are now far more willing to change employers than ever before.

Not only do people change jobs more readily, but the workforce is aging. Figures in the US suggest that the average working age is now 41 up from 35 in 1980. By 2015, according to the American Association of Retired Persons, one of every five employees will be at least 55.

In the UK, the combination of declining birth rates and greater longevity means that by 2030 the number of people aged 50 and over will have reached 46 per cent of the total UK population, rising from 33 per cent in 2002.

These trends are also evident in other developed countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Japan.

An aging population means more people leaving the workforce for retirement. On the other hand, the number of older people who work part-time is also increasing.

These trends represent two challenges for organisations. Firstly, how do we keep our best, most experienced and knowledgeable people? And secondly, how do we make better use of those who are considering retirement?

The answer to the first question is simple (although implementing it may be more challenging). Treat people better, engage them fully and develop employee loyalty. It is long past due that organisations realise that treating people as "their greatest assets", means more than traditional financial asset management through pay and benefits.

So keeping older people employed - and thus reducing staff turnover rates - delivers an immediate financial benefit. But more than this, studies also suggest that older people are better workers.

For example, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety report that older workers exhibit lower turnover, more dedication to the workplace, and have more positive work values. Absenteeism is less frequent, although it is longer when it does happen.

The answer to the second challenge – making better use of older workers – is already being met by some organisations. Can we take a lead from the following three examples?

In 1989 the UK DIY retailer B&Q opened an outlet in Macclesfield. The new store enjoyed low turnover of staff, low levels of absenteeism, high profits and soon established a positive image in the local community. It was also staffed entirely by over 50s.

The success of this organisational experiment encouraged the company to develop its over 50s recruitment policy. It now boasts that of a total staff of 37,000, 22 per cent are over 50.

In the public sector, The Chicago Transit Authority implemented a Phase-In Retirement program for retiring employees. This program gradually acclimatises mature workers to retirement by steadily reducing their work hours and pay rates, but concurrently gives them their pensions. Older workers are also encouraged to become mentors for younger employees.

The third example comes from Hewlett Packard which has found a new resource – loyal former employees. HP has an army of former employees who often give their time voluntarily as marketers, good will ambassadors and in-store sales people.

Enlightened organisations such as these are now re-employing former workers either full time or part time to take advantage of their expertise and in many cases, their desire to stay actively engaged in the workforce.

However to take advantage of the aging workforce, organisations need to treat their existing employees (both young and old) as more than merely "assets". Long term loyalty can only be gained through a dedicated approach to ongoing people development.

The result is probably best summed up by a former HP employee John Toppel, who now gives his time freely as an in-store sales consultant.

In a recent press interview Toppel said, "I feel like I have two marriages; a wonderful marriage at home for 36 years and a wonderful marriage at HP. I guess that's now a former marriage, but I still have strong feelings for it".

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.