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L&D for the Mature Worker: What’s Age Got to do With It?

Bob Little 

April 14, 2017

Not so long ago, people in the western world knew the unbreakable rule of working life. After leaving school, you get a job and, when you reach a certain age – around 60 to 65 – you retire and live on a pension.

Then came the global financial crises, which shone a spotlight on several dubious practices in the financial sector, especially in pension funds. This, allied to the advancing average age of people in western countries, the rise of knowledge workers, and the ongoing technological revolution of the last 20 or so years, has resulted in more people remaining in employment beyond what used to be considered the “normal” retirement age.

While some people work beyond retirement age because they want to, necessity spurred on by insubstantial pension pots has also driven others to keep working.

This new fact of working life has implications for today’s L&D professional, as there is now increasing demand for materials that meet the needs and learning preferences of a more age-diverse workforce.

A study by James L. Moseley and Joan Conway Dessinger – called “Training Older Workers and Learners (OWLs) – addressed the issue of how to maximize aging employees’ workplace performance. The authors suggest that OWLs preferred learning styles can vary. While older OWLs tend to prefer auditory learning, younger OWLs show a preference toward visual or kinesthetic (physical) learning styles.

These differences will undoubtedly impact the effectiveness of the learning materials delivered by L&D professionals.

In the past, it could be assumed that “natural wastage” and the inevitable effects of time passing would eventually reconcile these different learning styles. But this no longer seems to be the case.

Statistics published by the U.K.’s Department for Work and Pensions in 2015 show that the employment rate for people aged 50 to 64 in the UK rose from 55.4 percent to 69.6 percent over the past 30 years – faster than the rate of growth for the total population of over-50s during this period.

Steven Baxter, Head of Longevity, Innovation and Research at pensions consulting firm Hymans Robertson, believes that, in addition to a general rise in longevity, much of the change in working longer is due to retirement age “equalization policies” influencing employment patterns at older ages. He also suggests that employers should consider better ways to support older workers, for instance by introducing more flexible working options.

Baroness Altmann, the U.K.’s Minister for Pensions in 2015/16, also supported this, reaffirming that, “A growing number of British firms recognize that having workers in their 50s and 60s alongside younger colleagues can boost business. Employers that retain the skills of their older workers by offering flexible working options and re-training opportunities really see the benefits.”

Social welfare organization AARP has continued to highlight the strengths of older workers – their reliability, for instance, along with their flexibility, experience and valuable institutional knowledge.

Some two decades ago in the U.S., fewer than a third of people aged 55 and over were employed or looking for work. Today, that proportion is 40 percent, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Moreover, there are signs that companies are increasingly “wooing” older workers with formal re-training programs. At the same time, age discrimination charges have declined for six consecutive years.

Despite this, some critics have blasted corporate re-entry programs for offering little or no salary, and distracting workers from seeking full-time, gainful employment.

So, how does this trend affect L&D professionals, and what challenges does it pose for them?

Kathryn Horton, who owns learning and training firm Turning Factor, says, “We often work with more mature workers in the L&D environment. They have vast experience but, often, we find their experience isn’t valued by the younger generation.

“While most mature workers want to learn, they also want to be valued for the experience they have. Some don’t wish to learn and believe they’re the “finished article” – but we also find this attitude among some of the younger generation too!

“Older workers can be an asset – especially where there’s a problem with succession planning. Maybe we should give them the necessary skills and help them to pass on their valued knowledge.  

“The key thing is to let these older workers know we value their experience and knowledge. If you help them understand there’s always more to learn, you can engage them, draw on their knowledge, and get them to help with examples from their experience. Among other things, this helps them feel valued.”

So, while motivation may be an issue with older workers, ultimately it is possible to “teach old dogs new tricks,” if they are willing to learn.

As futurist writer Alvin Toffler warned, “The illiterates of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.”

According to David Wells, of the Financial Times and IE Business School’s Corporate Learning Alliance (FT|IE CLA), “This issue isn’t based on, or defined by, a person’s age. When we consider the impact of technology on education and the pace of that change, we realize that even the young have to “unlearn” in order to re-learn.

While many organizations are pursuing learning programs built around agility, innovation or flexible mindsets, they sometimes unintentionally get stuck in the old systems.

“A common example is the story of Kodak. It wasn’t that Kodak failed to innovate but its old systems didn’t accommodate new ideas. Contrast this with Apple’s success when Steve Jobs took the original iPod off the market at the height of its greatest popularity and financial returns to make way for the yet-to-be-realized iPhone. By doing so, he was teaching Apple’s customers to unlearn – in this case, how they access music – in order to re-learn.”

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One comment on “L&D for the Mature Worker: What’s Age Got to do With It?”:

  1. Helena wrote:

    “The authors suggest that OWLs preferred learning styles can vary. While older OWLs tend to prefer auditory learning, younger OWLs show a preference toward visual or kinesthetic (physical) learning styles.”

    Although the myth persists, there is no evidence to support learning styles. Learning preferences, maybe, but not styles: