Mature age, mature attitudes

The workforce is getting older, but are companies responding appropriately? Catriona Byrne warns that firms need to find out more about their mature workers – and soon

The workforce is getting older, but are companies responding appropriately? Catriona Byrne warns that firms need to find out more about their mature workers and soon

Australia’s mature age workers are undergoing an identity crisis. Just five to ten years ago, they were easy targets for early retirement via redundancy. They could even put up their hands and help ease their company’s headcount headache. Now, they are set to become the recruiter’s darlings, a highly sought after prize in a diminishing candidate pool. Line managers are nervously asking them of their retirement intentions and begging them to stay a little longer – propelled by the risk of knowledge loss and the difficulty of replacing the departing employee.

There’s much talk about the ageing workforce and the implications for its employees of a demographic swing caused by lower birth rates and the baby boomers’ retiring. But how many organisations understand the merits of talking to their ageing workforce? Do they even know who they are, where they are and how many they have? This is the demographic equivalent of Y2K and it seems that there are still many organisations that are overwhelmed by the issue.

Progressive HR practitioners, however, are chunking down the challenge of ‘age management’ into tangible steps. To quote one industry source: “This is a no brainer – we’ve just got to start doing something.”

That ‘doing something’ often starts with a demographic audit. Who are our ‘mature age workers’? Where are they working? What are they doing? When are they retiring? Who is being promoted? How many are there? The results provide a clear picture of where the risks to the organisation lie.

Having found this hidden army whose exit rate is set to increase markedly over the next 10 years, the next step is to talk with them using surveys and focus groups. What do they value? Why would they choose to leave or stay? What would they find helpful in planning their retirement? This is a vital activity for informing the age management plan.

This process can reveal the unspoken generational stereotypes held within an organisation while talking through the issues helps to diffuse them and increase understanding. Organisations need to create or re-establish a culture that values the mature worker. If their history is one of large scale baby boomer redundancies, coupled with recruitment targets in the Gen X and Gen Y age bands, it can be a huge hurdle to jump.

With these two major projects in hand, the HR practitioner has a foundation for developing an age management plan with simple but powerful interventions that will stem the tide and create a balanced workforce. Knowing now who their company ‘sages’are, they can implement a timely knowledge continuity program to reduce the risk of knowledge loss. Knowing now when people are contemplating retirement, they can implement seminars which help employees redirect their retirement and explore flexible work options. Knowing now their recruitment patterns, they can educate in-house recruitment teams and line managers, overcome stereotypes and prove the bottom line value of a balanced workforce. Knowing now what makes an employer attractive to a mature age worker, they can focus on practical retention programs. Finally, knowing now where they need to address the balance of the workforce and recruit mature age workers, they can create a mature candidate pipeline by using specialist agencies and job boards such as www.adage.com.au.

Some major companies, including some of the biggest names from within the banking, accountancy and insurance sectors, have begun addressing the issue. The challenges are similar in each workforce, albeit weighted differently depending on industry and target markets. But while their efforts should be applauded. there are still too many organisations that don’t even know they have a problem. Others know, but as with Y2K, they’re not feeling the pain yet so other programs take priority. It is simply too late to wait for the mass exodus and then to see if you will cope.

Companies need to get the statistics, uncover the risk and get started. A ‘pilot’ approach can be particularly useful, implementing some simple programs that address the risks in one area of the business. Success can increase organically, while most age management interventions can dovetail into existing HR and people management programs. This won’t be just another HR program or fad - it’ll be the way the firm does business.

Catriona Byrne is Director of SageCo, specialists in age management consultation

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