As stock prices rise and recovery continues following the Great Recession, another phenomenon is quietly taking shape.
More U.S. workers than ever are planning to delay retirement, according to a 2012 report from The Conference Board, using data from its August 2012 consumer confidence survey, “Trapped on the Worker Treadmill?”
A March 18 U.S. News & World Report article, “Employers Slowly Enrich Programs for Older Workers,” reported that employees aged 55 to 65 are the fastest-growing component of the workforce.
As noted in the book The 2020 Workplace, by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd, the assumption that baby boomers will follow the same time frame for retirement as their predecessors was destroyed by the recession.
The book also cited the World Health Organization’s World Health Report 2004 statistic that healthy men and women over age 60 will be capable of working until they are 74 and 77, respectively.
The fact that they can and have reason to work longer does not mean that baby boomers will want to, however. This poses some unexpected learning challenges as older workers are pressured to keep up with changing times and technologies — all while their well-being and engagement on the job might be dwindling.
Learning leaders will have to provide older generations with a development approach that appeals to their unique historical perspective and helps them to discover the value in acquiring new skills.
The Mission Matters
Managing an older workforce earlier in his career was a learning experience for Jim Dunn, executive learning officer at Cleveland Clinic.
“Along with many other people, I made some assumptions early on that the older, more mature workers would be afraid of things like technology and be uncomfortable with it,” he said. “I found that not to be the case as it relates to learning and development within an enterprise. It relates to how well we’re able to engage them around the mission of the organization.”
When older employees fully grasp the company’s mission statement, Dunn said they should have access to a variety of learning tools to meet their preferences. Some will take to online options.
Others will require more traditional face time. Some will benefit from a blended learning approach, but ultimately, most will ask, ‘Why is this important, what did it mean for me?’
“They’re not looking at training as a way to move up the ladder,” Dunn said. “The question for them is, ‘What do you want from me, and how can I help the organization?’ You can’t approach it like an entry-level, midlevel employee.”
Learning leaders should practice a healthy, ongoing dialogue with their older workers to ensure their job roles align with their passions.
“We have to carefully craft roles in the organization around the expertise that’s needed and the passions of the people who deliver on the business goals,” said Leigh Mires, chief learning officer for engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. “This needs to be refreshed and renewed on a regular basis.”
When starting this dialogue, learning leaders should go in with an open mind. To get older employees interested in newer technologies, Dan Pontefract, head of learning and collaboration at Canada-based telecommunications company Telus and author of Flat Army, said it is important not to get caught up in anecdotes and cliches, such as assuming that older workers are not as tech-savvy as their younger counterparts.
“For a company like Telus where we have four generations in the workforce, it’s important to treat [older employees] with the same rigor, vigor and respect, and ensure they know that they’re part of [the company] as opposed to being segregated,” Pontefract said.
For instance, he said if a company’s culture is healthy and equates leadership to learning, popular social tools are not a requirement because the culture takes their place.
To successfully introduce new collaborative learning technologies such as social media to any generation, learning leaders should first consider their organization’s collaboration strategy.
“Collaboration is not a ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘If you build it, they will come’ strategy,” Pontefract said. “You can’t just dump tools and say, ‘Here they are, go for it.’ One of the things an organization can [ask] is, ‘What’s our adoption plan?’”
The first step is to define the objective, whether that is to build a healthy, open and transparent culture, or to identify new ways to conduct business logic and business process using social media.
Pontefract said he recommends setting up collaboration starter kits to get collaboration programs off the ground. “Collaboration starter kits are equal parts culture and equal parts, ‘How do you use the tool?’” he said.
Collaboration starter kits should parallel the organization’s learning strategy, if that strategy is part formal, informal and social.
“For example, you might need to set up face-to-face workshops to go through how to be social, as ironical as that may sound … taking them through face-to-face, hands-on workshops that say, ‘This is how you use microblogging; this is how you use video sharing; this is how you use a Webjam; this is how you use a wiki.”
One Way Is Not the Only Way
Organizations also should be open to reverse mentorship to train older workers on unfamiliar technology. Mires said mentoring does not have to be a top to bottom construct.
“You have to start to get senior leaders or older workers engaged in the new technology early and spend some time with them, so when you start to roll out things, they see that there’s a key leader who is actually using that technology,” she said. “The adoption process will be a lot faster.”
It is important to put some “rules of engagement” in place when drawing up a reverse mentoring program. For instance, how many meetings will participants have? “Then I craft conversation prompts focused around the objectives of the mentoring program for each of those meetings,” Mires said.
Tim Russell, manager of learning and development for Nintendo of America, said it makes sense even for a brand-new employee such as a college graduate to mentor an older executive.
Russell is a Gen Xer; he said he experienced the benefits of reverse mentoring firsthand when a younger employee showed him the advantages of Twitter. He said millennials can do wonders to shift older workers’ perspective.
“I didn’t even know what Twitter was,” he said. “I didn’t know why people were using it, and this young college graduate coached me through why having a Twitter account would be useful to my career and how to use it and leverage it as a learning tool.”
If older workers become more engaged as a result of collaboration, it will show. Pontefract said a few years ago he distributed flipcams to field technicians — typically older workers at Telus — asking them to snap photos and shoot short videos of their work to showcase how they resolved technical issues.
“Once you see these early, cross-the-chasm types of individuals demonstrate that it can be part of business flow, then others sort of catch on and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how you do it.’”
Pontefract said he recalled a fire in Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada, in May 2011 that destroyed 40 percent of the town. The disaster ultimately served as a case study of field technicians so engaged with their flipcams that they went above and beyond their job descriptions during the crisis.
“They had a flash fire, and it essentially engulfed the city. So this poor tiny hamlet of 7,000 people saw their city more or less go up in smoke,” he said.
Telus field technicians were sent to Slave Lake to offer tech support during and after the fire. “These field technicians never thought about it; they just started snapping photos and videos of both what they were doing and what was happening in the town,” Pontefract said. “So we have this library of videos and photos of what they’re doing to help and the situation that’s unfolding.”
The field technicians made it part of their jobs to help others learn from the emergency situation. Pontefract said they wrote about it, blogged about it and used other social tools after the fact to create a compelling story.
In more traditional work situations learning leaders will have to measure their progress in increasing older workers’ engagement by requesting their expertise the old-fashioned way.
“I have learned that formal invitations are not the best way to get them excited,” Dunn said, recalling a time he sent out an email to 200 or 300 team leaders, asking for thoughts or participation on an issue. Many of the more mature workers did not respond.
Dunn said he found that picking up the phone and scheduling five- to 10-minute, one-on-one meetings garnered more support than a one-size-fits-all email.
“[Saying] ‘This is an ongoing challenge and I believe your expertise lends itself to some great ideas or innovation in this area’ was the most effective approach, bringing them to a point where we could work backwards and say, ‘Would you mind joining this group or this team?’
“[Older employees] are looking for, ‘How do you engage this work around what I bring to the table?’”
Elizabeth Lisican is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.