Today’s workplace reflects unprecedented diversity. Organizations experience both the benefits and challenges of bringing together people from different races, with different sexual identities, who practice different religions, speak different languages, demonstrate different abilities and whose ages span the greatest number of generations ever to labor together in modern history.
Over the past several years, considerable time and energy have been invested in understanding and addressing the needs of younger workers. New platforms and approaches have emerged that better meet the working and learning styles and cadence of millennials. But, are we as concerned about older workers — and, more importantly, should we be? Consider these realities.
Demographic reality: The workplace is currently home to increasing numbers of older workers. Between 1960 and 2016, the World Bank reports that average life expectancy grew from nearly 53 to 72 years. According to Pew Research and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.8 percent or 9 million Americans 65 and older report working full or part time.
Biological reality: According to Lynda Gratton and Andres Scott, authors of “The-100 Year Life,” today’s 20-year-olds have a 50 percent chance of living to 100. Technological and medical advances allow people not only to live but also to contribute longer. All of this makes working longer — both in terms of number of years and later in life — the new normal.
Economic reality: Unemployment remains at historically low levels, resulting in a highly competitive labor market. Cities have be-gun offering cash payments to attract workers, and companies are taking extraordinary measures to enhance their employment brands. All of this conspires to perhaps encourage a new focus on previously undervalued resources and a move toward more inclusive hiring practices.
Competitive or workplace reality: It’s an uncertain and rapidly changing environment that most organizations find themselves navigating. According to the research of Josh Bersin, the half-life of today’s technical skills is just two years. Organizations must routinely disrupt themselves; this is only possible when employees (all employees) are willing to engage in their own disruption through ongoing learning and skills development.
Neurological reality: Science confirms that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks. Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to continue to create new neural pathways and connections throughout life. In fact, there’s a multimillion-dollar industry dedicated to brain training and exercise that caters to older adults who understand the “use it or lose it” proposition.
These realities suggest that today’s baby boomers may be an under-used organizational resource and that understanding and ad-dressing their ongoing learning and development needs could yield tremendous benefits. Organizations willing to make this a talent management priority will match longevity with learngevity and enjoy a powerful and sustainable competitive advantage.
Understanding the Older Learner
Evolving research and literature strongly suggest that aging and the experiences of life that come with it can create a powerful, super-charged learning environment for older learners. In Chip Conley’s forthcoming book, “Wisdom @ Work,” he states that elders have a “vast storehouse of solutions embedded in their maturing brains that allows them to synthesize more information.” Essentially, they are primed and ready learners.
Research conducted by Zenger-Folkman suggests that as people grow older, their confidence grows, defensiveness shrinks and receptivity to feedback expands. This allows older workers to shift from what Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman refer to as a “proving mindset” to an “improving mindset.”
Additionally, the more seasoned brain is better able to absorb next-level skills and nuances. According to John Barrett, executive vice president at Aon, “For younger employees the game is fast; they don’t see the big picture. But for more experienced employees, it’s a lot slower. They know the endgame and where they’re going … so they can take in more and learn more along the way.”
To learn more about how people’s relationships with learning change over time, earlier this year my consulting company DesignArounds undertook an online research study, surveying 450 individuals within the U.S. and stratifying groups by 10-year age bands.
Subjects were asked to rate how important each of these qualities is in terms of their learning:
• Personal experience-driven.
• Social/in groups.
We also contrasted today’s preference with their preferences early in their careers to gather quantitative data around shifts. Finally, we conducted qualitative analysis of text responses. Here’s what we found.
Some age-old/age-young truths: Surprisingly, the top learning preferences today, regardless of age, were nearly identical. While the rankings shifted by group, the top three out of four preferences for those 20 to 60-plus included: active, challenging, self-directed. This is good news for learning and talent development departments. While one size never fits all, it is reassuring to know that wildly different solutions are not necessarily required for different generations of learners in the workplace.
Powerful preferences: One of the most interesting aspects of the research is how strongly the 60-plus learner feels about their top learning preference. While younger learners certainly express an inclination, their commitment to that preference was fairly light or weak. However, older learners (60 and over) feel more strongly about and are more committed to their preferences. In fact, the top preference of an over-60 learner is 15.7 percent stronger than the preference held by those in their 50s, 7.6 percent stronger than those in their 40s, and 13.6 percent stronger than the preferences of those in their 30s and 20s.
Significant shifts: Within this study, we asked participants about how their learning preferences have changed over time, comparing today to early in their career. Predictably — given more time for change — the 60 and older learners express the greatest shifts. The two most profound swings include:
• Movement toward “self-selected/directed” and away from “selected/direct by others.” Older learners have a richer context for their learning. Unlike younger workers, they have a greater understanding of what they don’t know, and they definitely know what they are interested in learning.
• Movement away from “expert driven” and toward “personal experience driven.” While they remain eager to learn, older workers have frequently “been there and done that.” They have a lot to offer, but they also recognize that others do as well. They are ready to share their experience and hear the experiences of others to take their understanding and skills to the next level.
But, what doesn’t shift in terms of older learner preferences is equally as important as what does. The research suggests no shift whatsoever in terms of the level of challenge older workers want to experience relative to their learning. Older learners are not ready to let up or let themselves off the hook; they still want to challenge themselves and grow over time.
Offer Age-Agnostic Development Opportunities
Think about some of the most powerful development opportunities offered within your organization. Are they equal opportunity in terms of the age of those who participate? Frequently, the higher-profile programs like high-potential and rotational experiences are where younger workers congregate. But, given longer life spans and working careers along with organizational needs, does that make sense today?
Aon’s Barrett thinks not. In fact, nine years ago he opened up his organization’s coveted (and primarily millennial-populated) talent and development program to an employee who was well into her 60s. When Anna raised her hand to participate, Barrett used it as an opportunity to make the point that this was not a “young” training program but a training program for those who were ready to con-tribute at the next level.
As Barrett described it, “She knew the organization, was well-liked and engaging — with good social skills, great attitude and appetite to learn — all things that can’t be taught.” He also recognized her as someone whose success could attract other more seasoned, senior employees to challenge themselves as well.
After two intensive years in the program, Anna was indeed a success. Her experience teamed with new knowledge and skills put her in a unique position to take on challenges that other younger colleagues simply were not prepared to meet. She took on a unique role, making a significant business impact. And the organization can reap the benefits of its investment in her for years to come.
Additionally, this changed the learning environment and culture within Barrett’s office. Other employees internalized the message that the organization cared, that learning wasn’t just for the youngsters, and that anyone interested in and capable of contributing would get the support they needed to grow and develop. Today, the program enjoys cross-generational participation and success.
Rotational programs might also be expanded to be more age-inclusive. Sometimes as people age, their family dynamics become less complex, allowing relocation to occur with greater ease and more enthusiasm.
Older rotators take with them greater experience, institutional knowledge and in some cases better instincts and judgment as well, allowing for richer cross-pollination and higher-level learning. And the same thinking applies to internships.
Mentorship also benefits from an age-defying twist. Older workers don’t just want to be the sages, dispensing knowledge to their younger colleagues. They also want to learn, making reverse mentoring and inter-generational reciprocation a powerful tool for sup-porting everyone across the generational spectrum in two-way learning.
Design With an Eye Toward Engaging Older Learners
Making formal development programs available to older learners engages this critical population and leverages what they have to offer toward business results. But there are also steps that can be taken to ensure that all learning opportunities and events meet their needs as well. And the good news is that doing so will likely enhance the value to everyone regardless of age. Consider the following:
•Engineering greater choice into learning experiences.
• Enhancing the level of active engagement.
• Creating challenging experiences.
• Personalizing learning.
• Drawing upon experiences.
• Allowing time for reflection.
Organizations need great talent. And great (seasoned) talent is available and poised to contribute to the meaty challenges facing businesses today. But this happens only if we support older workers to “move from being the wisdom keepers of the past to the wisdom seekers of the future,” as expressed by Conley in “Wisdom @ Work.” An aging workforce need not be a liability but rather a competitive advantage.