The age of the ageless workforce

June 10th 2016:

Frankly I’m a bit tired of all this talk about companies needing to adapt to the expectations of the millennials. I don’t disagree with the sentiment. Far from it. It’s absolutely right that companies should be actively attracting, developing and retaining the best young talent.

ZN00512_600But I think the discussion is missing half the story. Whilst millennials will be the next generation of leaders, they will never make up the entire workforce. By 2020, around 50% of the global workforce will be millennials but that still leaves 36% of the workers who will be 50+, including 10% of over 65s who are still working and, of course, the Gen Z post-millennials will soon be joining the workforce with their own needs and expectations.

Within the next few years we will have 5 (some say more) generations in the workplace. That’s a much bigger challenge than solely catering to the needs of the millennials and we need to figure out what that really means for the workplace of the future.

So, while I’m on my soap box, let’s not write off older workers as risk-averse, stuck in the past and resistant to change. If we do that we dismiss every manager, mentor or colleague whose experience we’ve learnt from.

And we shouldn’t make assumptions about attitudes to risk or change. Last year I was part of an interesting discussion at an IOD event in which we mused over the fact that whilst millennials appear to be quicker to switch brands, products or companies and therefore seem open to change, that’s their choice. I’ve met plenty of millennials hungry for the next challenge but I’ve also encountered those who find it hard to adapt or to step out of their comfort zones. Meanwhile, as we go through the big highs and lows of life, we learn how to gain perspective and adapt to change. Whilst some workers may become stuck in their ways for others, as they reach the end of their working life, there may be ‘less to lose’ and a big motivational drive to leave a deep and lasting legacy of success. In fact, those over 50 are experiencing the biggest growth in self-employment and are the most likely to still be going 5 years later.

Interestingly, some commentators suggest that older and younger workers actually have a lot more in common than we might first imagine. For instance, they are attracted to work they find interesting and to companies they feel an affinity with. PwC’s insightful ‘Managing tomorrow’s people’ study suggests three diverging corporate business models which will shape the business world of the future. These three trends – the ‘corporate is king’ blue-chip, the socially responsible green organisation and the ‘small is beautiful’ niche specialists – will all offer different opportunities and options for the post-generational workforce.

So, rather than focusing on an environment that suits just one generation, albeit an important one, let’s start thinking about creating an ageless environment in which all team members can excel:
An ‘elastic’ workforce: more diversity in terms of employment arrangements including full-time, part-time, job share, secondments, sabbaticals, freelancers, perma-temps, contractors and partnerships to name a few.
Versatile working patterns including flexible hours, home and remote working. The multi-generational workforce has to cope not just with childcare but parent care, spouse care and grandchild care, not to mention wider work-life-study choices. Of course, these are not just one way arrangements. Companies with a high proportion of remote and flexible workers can benefit from lower salary and real-estate costs, a more engaged and loyal workforce and extended hours of cover.

Adaptive office environments: enlightened companies are creating aesthetic, light, multi-purpose workspaces that balance the formal and informal and provide collaborative and video-enabled meeting spaces with quiet areas for task focused activities.
Diverse motivation and reward. What we value changes through our lives. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff development, retention, reward and career progression in order for each individual to maximise their own potential.

Changing management and leadership styles. Managers will increasingly have direct reports that are older than them – not just their parents’ age but in some cases older than their grandparents – and that requires a shift in leadership approaches, expectations and dynamics.
Making the most of talent. The tacit knowledge and perspective that comes with experience is highly valuable. It’s not about holding on to an obsolete past but leveraging and combining experience with fresh future-focused ideas to bring rapid innovation and fast-track execution planning. And, mixed generation teams can be highly collaborative as they tend to demonstrate less internal competitiveness than single generational groups.

So why is now the ageless age?

Transformational change tends to happen when several trends collide and intersect at a point in time when there’s a compelling reason to change. And, we might argue, that time is now.

We live longer – and are fit and healthy for longer too. Many people are enthusiastic about working later in life – though not necessarily full time or in their original career.
Savings and pensions have in many cases underperformed, the ‘final salary pension’ is rapidly on its way out, governments are increasing retirement ages and the economy is just about bumping along. In many cases, people are unable to retire to an acceptable quality of life.

Technology is now truly delivering collaborative, visual, mobile workplaces which allow people to productively ‘work from anywhere’. Older generations may not universally adopt ‘technology for the sake of technology’ but they can be surprisingly fast adopters of technology which enhances their lives, saves them time or makes them more productive. (My mother, for instance, immediately got an iRobot vacuum the moment she saw mine!)
And the nature of work is changing. Most repetitive and recurring transactional tasks have been automated or outsourced, leaving a growing demand – and skills shortage in many areas – for knowledge workers able to deliver variable, erratic and fluid projects that call for innovation, experience and effective execution.

A time for choice

We have a choice. Muddle along together, paying lip service to the needs of the millennials and hoping everyone else either falls in line or ships out or create dynamic ageless organisations that leverage the skills and energies of its entire workforce and, in return, provide a working environment that adapts through all phases of our working lives. Aspirational? Yes. Achieveable? Let’s hope so – working life will be all the richer for it.