Contrary to popular myth, the current Baby Boomer generation is the best educated, healthiest and most productive than any generation before them. Which is why the UK’s most forward-thinking employers are adopting smart policies that will encourage them to stay in the workplace for longer.
Recent ONS figures show that there are almost 10 million over 50s now employed in the UK, and the figure is rising. By 2025 Baby Boomers will become the largest section of the workforce, representing 1 in 3 working people. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the majority of employers rate their own mature workers highly, perceiving them to be more employable and talented than their younger counterparts, based on positive attitudes to work, flexibility and reliability.
Yet, when we arrive in 2025, mature talent will start to become a scarce commodity. 12.5 million people are approaching pensionable retirement and with only 7.5 million new entrants leaving school and college, several sectors in the UK organisations are walking into a void of knowledge and skills. Baby Boomers will begin to leave the workforce in droves, unless companies build programmes to enable them to work more healthily for longer.
Economic necessity will go some way to stemming the tide, as only the wealthy few and wisest long-term planners will afford to retire fully at pensionable age. In fact, over 1.1 million are already planning to do work into their 70s. Government and industry also predict a further increase in the retirement age and even then most of those of pensionable age will be forced to work, albeit part-time. As Alistair McQueen, Savings and Retirement Manager at Aviva points out, “when it comes to funding our longer lives, we have two options – save more or work longer. For many, the best response will be a mix of the two.”
But there are other, more positive factors at play, as many hardworking Baby Boomers are finding it impossible to shift the habits of a lifetime and still have a positive desire to work. Shock-horror, some of us even still love what we do. All of this is good for business, as this demographic have higher levels of education than previous generations retirees, are more self-sufficient and are tech-savvy.
Market leaders in manufacturing, engineering, banking and retail are among the first companies to grasp the positive benefits of an age-diverse workplace. Barclays Bank and Aviva have frequently declared that mature employees build better relationships with customers, and are more successful in selling products like mortgages and pensions to the older consumers. B&Q, The John Lewis Partnership and Marks & Spencer are all successful in matching their customer demographic with employees of all ages. In order to recruit and retain this diversity, they are offering more flexible contracts that are more attractive to the older workers, including shorter working hours, reduced shift patterns that fit around other commitments, opportunities to share knowledge, coach and mentor other staff.
Companies who realise the positive benefits of the mature worker tend to be ahead of the curve, too, in terms of occupational health programmes. Specialist pharmaceutical manufacturer, Patheon started looking at the needs of the older employees back in 2014, when 52% of its operational staff was between the ages of 45-59 and a further 15% was over 60. “Our staff are highly skilled people and as the company offers excellent pay and conditions and good pensions, people tend to stay put,” explained John McLaughlin, director of health & safety for the EU region. “In our experience, our older staff are highly knowledgeable, they know when to ask questions and challenge, and they are acutely risk-aware. The problem we found was that, when they did have any illness or injury, they took longer to recover than younger members of the team.” Patheon addressed this issue by introducing a programme of immediate access to physiotherapy for their employees, so that any health problems that could impact occupational activity were addressed faster and more effectively, thus reducing the costs to the business of temporary staff cover. “In my view, it’s highly likely that the pensionable retirement age will increase further over the next decade and so looking after your employees’ health and safety is an economic necessity as well as a social responsibility.”
Companies that face up to the operational needs of the older workforce not only see productivity levels improve, but they are also rewarded for their progressive policies with a much healthier and more collaborative working culture.
We see the same happening in our own communications agency, theblueballroom, where our creative team spans almost four decades in physical age, a factor that attracted our new head of creative and digital, Ben Horsley to the role. “A huge advantage of having young and mature specialists on a team,” he said, “is that the more mature individuals will have experience of more traditional creative practices. Younger creative specialists do tend to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to digital disciplines, such as designing or coding for social media, mobile apps, and so on. But we rely so much on knowledge and experience of more traditional factors in our work, such as four-colour printing, binding, paper stock, page layout, publication, editorial, and so on. I think every creative team would benefit from having a good mix of generations purely to suit the shifts in the industry.”
Sadly, for UK innovation, the majority of companies just aren’t thinking this smartly. There is still too much attention given to the misinformed belief that older workers are more expensive, less productive, slow to change and unreliable, misconceptions that have led to an early exodus from the workplace for much valuable talent. With fewer than 1 in 10 of companies proactively recruiting over 50s, small wonder that nearly two out of three people between the ages of 55 and 64 see their age as a disadvantage when applying for a job.
Employers should review both their preconceptions and their employment practices to not only adapt to changing demographics but to reap the benefits of an all-age workforce. Rather than lose the grey matter in your organisation, steal a march on your competitors, introduce some all-age friendly and flexible employment policies and build the competitive advantage that a multi-generational working culture delivers.
Sheila Parry is founder & chairman of theblueballroom ltd.