Facing the challenges of an ageing workforce

The workforce is getting older. There are two primary reasons: UN data shows an aging population which is expected to work later than before while the number of young people entering the workforce is shrinking in key economies, including the US, UK and China. This means enterprises must prepare themselves for an aging workforce. Technology could inform part of their response.

Silver surfers seek employment

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills warns that between 2012 and 2022 it expects 12.5 million vacancies to be created as people leave the workforce, while an additional 2 million jobs will emerge – the problem is just 7 million young people will enter the workforce in that time. Employers must overcome age prejudice to meet staff needs during high employment.

Meanwhile, improvements in health and medicine mean pension ages are becoming higher and the population of over 50’s is growing. The number of self-employed over-65’s in the UK has doubled in the past five years to nearly half a million. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics says 36 percent of over-65’s will still be working by 2024 – up from 22 percent in 1994.

In China, over one-in-ten of the population are 65 or more, resulting in the working population falling to its lowest level for a decade last year.

An aging working population isn’t a universal global challenge, of course. India (for example) has a workforce that seems to be getting younger, but it does impact enterprise in some places.

Some bigger businesses - McDonald’s, JD Wetherspoon and Lloyds Banking Group in the UK, the National Grid, Urban Health in the US - are consciously increasing their roll call of older employees. Flexible and remote working, job sharing and part time working help.

Experience matters

Most business leaders appreciate older employees provide extensive experience that can help their business grow. Retiring senior staff are hard to replace, creating a steady attrition of skill, ability and experience. Along with a need to learn on the job, incoming younger workers have different needs and are more likely to move between jobs.

To retain experience, some enterprises respond by moving older employees into mentoring roles, training younger staff in what they know. Michelin has even rehired retirees to mentor employees while big US accountancy firm PKF O’Connor Davies recruits older staff to mentor younger workers.

It can work the other way: Cisco Systems, Target and United Health Group all offer reverse mentoring schemes where younger employees mentor older ones to learn new skills.

“Today’s older workers are healthier and a lot more technologically savvy than older workers of previous generations,” Deborah Banda of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) told the New York Times. “They bring a lot to the workplace; many employers are seeing that. They know that recruiting and retaining older workers is good for their business.”

Different needs

Older employees have different needs. A recent AARP survey claimed 62 percent of workers over 50 saw flexible hours as important, with 44 percent stressing the importance of telecommuting. This is a great opportunity for enterprises to embrace collaborative solutions, such as unified communications (UC) like Business Together, or social collaboration networks such as Sharespace.

Such tools enable older employees to work productively within their most active time periods (as we age, sleep patterns change, making conventional commuting hours more challenging to maintain).

This seems to be what’s happening: a recent Global Workplace Analytics study found that remote workers tend to be older, better educated and to earn higher salaries compared to on-site employees.

Smart enterprises will deploy remote and flexible working, UC and collaboration solutions to harness the skill and experience older employees provide, while also enabling the flexibility they need.

This is particularly true around health. Older staff are more likely to possess or develop a disability, or to require health interventions. In this context, enterprises can look at medical insurance, labour-saving technologies and ergonomically-designed working areas as part of their employee benefits.

Xerox, for example has an ergonomic training scheme to reduce musculoskeletal disorders across its aging workforce. Assistive technologies, from automation to voice control, and future advances in automation and robotics may also enable older workers to remain in physically demanding posts. Large geographically-dispersed enterprises can identify innovative new approaches: CVS in the U.S. has a scheme that lets older pharmacists from the cold north of the country transfer to warmer states, such as Florida, for winter.

Learn new tricks

There’s a misconception that older employees are less capable of learning, but a 2016 Ipsos survey for Dropbox found older workers far less likely to find using tech at work stressful: just a quarter of those over 55 did so in contrast to 35 percent of 18-34’s. When it comes to technology skill development, older workers appear to be more learning confident than their younger peers.

This willingness to learn is significant for enterprises seeking new hires. Columbia University researchers found older workers who have become detached from regular employment (think single parents or semi-retirees) 25 percent cheaper to hire than recruiting similarly experienced staff from existing positions.

Overcoming ageism

Despite the demographic need, the desire among older people to remain productive and technology solutions that enable employers to efficiently provide opportunity to older staff, prejudice remains a challenge.

Research from both the Federal Reserve of San Francisco and a UK Business in the Community have identified that older jobseekers are less likely to gain an interview.

However, employers may find creative use of technology alongside flexible working practice and a readiness to overcome ageist prejudice enables them to recruit experienced, high-caliber, highly-qualified staff otherwise left on the shelf.

Find out more about how Orange Business can enable your business with audio and web conferencing here, or how mobile solutions can impact business transformation.
Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.