Our Digital Society is developing faster than current infrastructures can adapt or respond. Added to the technological changes that confront us, is our extended life expectancy. Older professionals have never had a tougher time finding a job – especially in areas where, until recently, no education paths have been defined (UX and UI being two examples).
What do we do with the growing numbers of people in their 50’s and 60’s who still want, need, and are able to work – a time traditionally assumed to be the beginning of retirement? Hot on the heels of rethinking communication and culture within a Digital environment, a second paradigm shift is also necessary – a new mindset for the acceptance and integration of older workers.
Rather than simply enhancing and supporting traditional methods of work, Digital Transformation offers solutions that enable innovation and creativity, thereby motivating the transformation of businesses and organizations. The result is a structure that is more efficient and ultimately more profitable. If we follow this equation, the two perceived negatives of an increasingly ageing workforce, and our extended life expectancy can actually transform to become a plus – a silver lining in that cloud of concern. The result can be a more innovative and successful society.
An Ageing Population
Given demographic trends in the developing world, corporate workforces are set to age significantly in the next few decades. According to a 2016 UN report “Population ageing is in many ways a demographic success story, driven by changes in fertility and mortality that are associated with economic and social development. However, the changes in population age structure brought on by sustained low fertility pose challenges, including an expanding older population and shrinking workforce to pay for social services and pensions and to drive economic growth.” 1
50+ year olds will account for almost half of the German population by 2020.Statista
I have been working in Germany for the last 25 years. Here the current working population of 25-39-year olds stands at 15.75%, while the working population of 40-59-year olds is almost 10% higher at 24.1% (Statista). Looking at the population of Germany as a whole, the spread is even larger. In 2000, 35% of the population was over the age of 50. Today it is 45%.
An acceptance, and strategy of integration, of older employees in companies today, will make it easier for current younger employees when they themselves are in their 60’s. By 2050 the percentage of the world’s population over the age of 65 will double, from 8% to 16% – while the number of minors will significantly decrease.
Digital Natives Meet Digital Immigrants
As the internet came of age in the nineteen nineties, there were already a large group of people working in the “New Media” industry. These pioneers were then in their twenties and thirties and are now the 50+ demographic sometimes finding themselves in the position of looking for work in the same industry they helped create. Ironically 50+ aged workers are often marginalized by being seen as “Digital Immigrants”.
The understanding of a “Digital Native” as someone who grew up using a technology, does great disservice to the generation who grew up building that technology. The 50+ generation has the benefit of a perspective prior to Digital, including a skillset of thinking and problem solving missing in those who have never not used digital tools.
Older employees positively contribute to the bottom line of any business – saving time and saving money. As the population ages, the pool of experienced talent grows.
Digital and Social Transformation
The last Industrial Revolution gave us the Luddites. The idea of Basic Income has been discussed, to offset a possible “rage against the machine” by unemployed workers. We derive much of our sense of self-worth from work. Are we ready for early retirement or more leisure time? 100 years ago, we were expected to live until we were 50. Now we expect to live well into our 70’s. What do we do with these extra years and, how will they be financed?
With a shrinking younger workforce paying for a growing retired population, not only national pension funds look to shrink over the next 20 years, but local pension funds – the USA experiences this already – are dangerously low. A growing percentage of tax funds go to pay the pensions of government employees; which means less revenue to support current services such as parks, libraries, and schools which benefit younger workers. Older workers would continue to contribute to the tax coffers, rather than be a drain on them – at least for a few more years. 2
Diversity in the workplace should not only be men and women, migrants, and special needs employees – but also include the mix of young and old.
A WinWin for Everyone
A more diverse worksplace on one hand, cost savings for business and government on the other, and in an unexpected third hand reaching over, the social, psychological and health benefits of retaining and intaking older workers .
“Later retirement buffers cognitive decline, Ursula Staudinger, a Columbia University professor, lifespan psychologist and aging researcher, observes, as active workers maintain social and intellectual stimulation and continue learning in ways that benefit the brain’s plasticity instead of letting it atrophy from disuse.” 3
A Harvard Business Report in 2014 also notes the benefits of older employees:
“Companies that (adapt to an ageing workforce) have seen tangible improvements …. Since B&Q began actively recruiting older workers, its staff turnover has decreased by a factor of six, while short-term absenteeism is down 39%. … older employees have been integral in creating a friendlier, more conscientious work environment. And profits are up 18%. … BMW has seen productivity jump 7% … United Technologies has boosted its older worker retention rate by 20%, and Unilever UK estimates that it gains six euros in productivity for every one euro spent on wellness … ” 4
Senior Experts or Hidden Champions?
Cost effectiveness – Less money must be spent on training if your employees have experience that has been garnered from a long working life – and that can be handed down. Older workers are also more industry aware of best practice and existing technology (and have experience with learnings from previous technology and project iterations)
Flexibility – Older workers normally have less commitments – to younger children at home. They have a flexibility with working patterns and location that younger workers may not.
Experience and Responsibility – Older workers are normally more reliable, which give companies more employee security. Because they have “been there and done it”, their experience can save both time and money.
Role model / Mentorship / Leadership – Training younger employees can be done in-house via older employees. Older workers are also more open to sharing ideas and experiences.