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Make the most of older workers

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Older workers may be the best source of the capabilities UK business is struggling to find.

Organisations invest a lot of time and money in managing ‘high-potentials’ to build a credible pipeline for critical roles.  Yet many of them recruit externally for important roles, because they see no strong internal candidates. It’s costly and it’s also going to become harder given the UK’s skills gap and the likelihood that Brexit will constrain the supply of foreign workers. 

Older employees often represent untapped talent.  Some of Britain’s major companies such as Barclays and Aviva have recognised this and set targets to hire more over-50s. 

But this is the exception rather than the norm; older employees within a business are often overlooked when filling critical roles.  It’s assumed they lack the potential or the desire to take on new or more challenging roles.  But why shouldn’t they?

We need to challenge myths about older workers:

Drive and energy

For many older employees it takes considerable drive, commitment and ability to balance all their priorities at work and outside it – key requirements of many critical roles in today’s organisations.  And better activity levels and general health among older people means energy isn’t a problem for them.

Thriving in ambiguity

Those in middle management positions have often spent years working without knowing the full picture and have had to interpret unclear messages and expectations from the levels above them.  Those already in senior positions are likely to have got there in part because of their ability to handle ambiguity.

Cognitive ability

Although our cognitive skills decline with age, the decline starts in early adulthood, which means older employees have already learnt how to apply and use the skills and experience they have to best effect – and how to compensate where these fall short. Don’t assume that age-related decline will be noticeable or have an impact. 

Relocation and mobility

Whilst some older employees are set in their ways, many are revelling in the renewed freedom (particularly those whose children have become independent), providing an ideal opportunity to move to new locations which may not be practical or appealing for those earlier in their careers.


Finally, older employees often have a greater desire to put back into the organisation, rather than promote their own ideas or careers.  This means they can be more willing collaborators, as well as being more courageous about encouraging and fostering new ideas and innovation.

There are practical ways to exploit the opportunities presented by older workers

Getting the most out of older employees with potential is much the same as for other employees, but here are some age-specific lessons we’ve gained from our work:

1. Mind your language

Review the words used in your leadership and competency frameworks to check that they are not inadvertently making it harder for older employees to demonstrate the characteristics you are looking for.  For example, ‘hungry and ambitious’ might be easier to observe in younger people.  However, ‘strong appetite to make an impact and drive to succeed’ is not dissimilar in meaning and equally demonstrable at all ages.

2. Find out what older people offer – and are up for

Don’t underestimate the transferability of skills and do take the time to learn about your older employees’ backgrounds.  They may well have experience and knowledge that is invaluable to your organisation, but you just don’t know about it.  And explore your employee data to find those employees who have not taken on new roles for a while.  Have a conversation with them to see what they would like to do.  Our assumptions that older employees don’t have ambition can often make it harder for them to speak out than for those earlier in their careers.

3. Offer real challenges to those approaching retirement

Some people are happy to have a quiet life leading up to retirement, but others would love the opportunity to take on a final big challenge.  Knowing how long they are going to be working for you is very helpful in planning terms – and they will be fully committed to helping you develop successors as this will be their legacy.

4. Embed mentoring and coaching

Those earlier in their careers can gain huge value from being mentored or coached by older colleagues.  Select your mentors and coaches carefully so that less experienced people can gain insights and confidence from conversations with those who have ‘been there, seen that’, but who are also open to new perspectives.  And older employees are not strangers to change, whether driven by new opportunities or by economic headwinds.  They can help others adapt.

5. Discourage age-related assumptions wherever you can

It’s not just that older employees may not be too old to take on a different and challenging job and that younger employees may not be too young.  Rather – as in other areas of diversity – we need to see each person as an individual, not a member of a group, and help them apply and develop their capabilities, regardless of their starting point. 

The real challenge for Talent and HR professionals is to meet their organisations’ demand for good people by drawing on the widest possible pool of potential – and that means more penetrating analysis and more creative solutions to the issues of age at work than may have been required up to now.

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