Let’s turn the tables for a moment. Instead of just concentrating on attracting and retaining younger workers, let’s think about how to engage employees who are 40 and older.
Unfortunately, there’s a global perception that once employees pass a certain age, they become less valuable. Organizations need to overcome this bias and invest in efforts to engage older workers, as they understand the nuances of the business and can transfer that subtle knowledge to younger workers.
“Some people have a perception that once you pass even age 35, you’re older and it’s about time for you to leave and make room for the youngsters,” said Joan Dessinger, co-author of Training Older Workers and Learners (OWLs). “There’s been an avoidance of the older-worker issue. Utility companies, for example, complain about the fact that they’re going to be losing most of their experienced workers to retirement and, yet, their solution is to court, bring in or train new workers — not how to keep [older workers] from leaving or how to retrain [them].”
This tends to be a never-ending cycle, Dessinger said.
“This has been the pattern for so many years: People enter the workforce, they get to a certain point and they retire. Organizations look at that upper end of their workforce in terms of age and say, ‘Let’s get the high-enders out. We’ll bring new people in. It’ll be cheaper for us in the long run. We’ll be able to get enough work out of them, and then we’ll hire somebody cheaper and younger.’”
What organizations are losing, though, is irreplaceable. They are losing the history and knowledge only older workers can bring to the table.
“Even though organizations need to constantly reinvent themselves, they still need to know where they’ve been, as well as where they’re going,” Dessinger explained. “Older workers bring that sense of history, that sense of continuity to organizations. They’ve had so much experience that isn’t written down. It’s not codified. It’s not part of the knowledge bank — subtle things about handling clients or working on a manufacturing floor that only they know because they’ve done it for so long.”
In engaging these OWLs, organizations have to adapt by offering flex time and partial retirement, Dessinger said. Mentoring also is a great way to keep them involved and excited about the business, as it gives them the opportunity to teach and learn from the younger workers. Learning is critical in this process.
“They always talk about adapting training to the learners, and there’s been a lot written lately on adapting training to younger workers, but unfortunately some of the strategies for younger workers just [don’t] work well for older workers,” Dessinger said.
For example, Dessinger recently reviewed some award-winning e-learning that just wasn’t conducive to the way older workers learn. Slight changes would make a big difference — such as the type, color and size of fonts.
The key in engaging the whole workforce is providing a spectrum of opportunities for people to learn the material. Organizations aren’t only made up of Generation Yers, and learning leaders can’t afford to concentrate only on them.
“It goes back to maintaining the collective knowledge of the organization,” Dessinger said. “Back in earlier times, people would sit around a campfire at night, and [people] of all ages would listen to older members tell stories about what they did during times of famine and what they did during times of plenty. People listened and passed it on. That’s still important. When you lose the older workers, you’re losing that continuity, that history.”
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