Managing an Aging Team
Being Flexible and Positive
Sunny is a 57-year-old industrial designer, who's spent 25 years working for an organization in New Jersey, but he's starting to think of retiring. He knows he can afford to stop working, but he's not sure he wants to.
He has lots of hobbies he enjoys, but he also loves his work. So when he hears about an opportunity at a company on the West Coast, developing new products, he realizes he doesn't want a rest, he wants a challenge.
The hiring manager has seen Sunny's application and, while she knows he's qualified, she's not sure he's going to have the energy or enthusiasm for the job. She wonders whether it's worth interviewing him.
Under the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers are prohibited from discriminating against anyone over 40 based on their age. The consequences of doing so can be quite serious, and can include negative publicity and damage to your organization's reputation. Employers may be liable to pay lost wages and/or future earning capacity, damages for emotional distress, and, in some cases, be required to reinstate dismissed employees. Employers may also be required to pay the employee's attorneys' fees.
As a manager, it's important to be able to deal with an increasingly age-diverse team. In this article, we'll explore the advantages and challenges of working with older team members, and we'll look at how you can manage your people in a way that benefits everyone.
This article focuses on age discrimination in the U.S. Other countries have different policies and practices, so carefully research laws in your own state or country, and check with your organization's HR department, before you take any action.
The Aging Workforce
According to a study in the Harvard Gazette, people are becoming increasingly healthy later in life. The National Healthy Worksite program says that we are also living longer, with life expectancy advancing from 70 to 78 in the U.S. in the last 50 years. The large baby boomer generation has now reached aged 65, and many older people want to continue working. There is also the financial need for older adults to work beyond the traditional retirement age, due to the high cost of health insurance, lower rates of pension coverage (particularly following the financial crisis), and a desire to accumulate more savings.
Other people want to retain their social contacts. In fact, research shows that continuing to work has a positive effect on your mental health, particularly when you have the freedom to choose what you do. The result of these trends is an increasing number of older people in the workforce.
At the same time, a McKinsey study shows that fewer young people are working. They are staying in education longer, tough economic conditions are making it harder for them to find work, and their skills may not meet organizations' needs particularly well.
Research by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) suggests that the increasing number of working baby boomers and the decreasing number of younger people in work might create a labor shortage. However, age discrimination, restrictive company policies that discourage downshifting opportunities, or flexible hours may mean that organizations lose people with significant experience, and may struggle to replace them with equally skillful people.
Benefits of Employing Aging Team Members
There are many advantages in hiring and retaining older people, and research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals several of them. For example, aging team members will likely have gained advanced knowledge and skills from many years in the workplace, which makes them able to serve as mentors to younger colleagues. They may also have a mature, professional outlook, a strong work ethic, and be reliable.
The SHRM also reports that older people can tend to possess well-developed critical thinking, problem solving, and leadership skills, along with a sense of social responsibility. One study suggests that younger team members view those aged over 50 as reliable and loyal, with a strong work ethic and lots of business experience, organizational memory, and specialized skills.
Organizations can also benefit from employing older people who represent their target audience, and who demonstrate the diversity of their culture, as it can give them a competitive advantage. This is particularly the case as populations, globally, age.
Challenges of Employing Aging Team Members
While many benefits come from employing and retaining older people, there are also several potential challenges that you should be aware of.
It can be easy to assume that older people will struggle with declining mental or physical health. It's true that hearing loss occurs naturally with age and can lead, if inadvertently, to exclusion. A study by Robin Peterson reveals that, in certain types of jobs, physical restrictions can be the biggest challenge for older workers. But, according to research by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, cognitive decline starts in a person's early 20s, though physical exercise can slow or even halt this process.
Younger team members may believe that older colleagues block their employment opportunities and career advancement prospects by remaining in work past retirement age. Nearly 50 percent of the participants in a study by KPMG think that aging team members should make room for younger people, and they also fear that baby boomers in the workplace affect productivity.
However, a research paper by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found no evidence to support this theory in the U.S. In fact, the analysis suggests that employing older people leads to better outcomes for younger workers, including reduced unemployment and a higher wage.
Similarly, many people make assumptions about older team members, but a study by Ng and Feldman, which included an analysis of nearly 400 studies, shows that most of these negative generalizations are untrue. They examined six of the most damaging stereotypes regarding older employees – that they are less motivated, less willing to engage in training, resistant to change, not as trusting, more likely to experience health problems that affect their work, and more likely to experience work-life balance conflicts. The results showed that only the one that older people are less willing to engage in training is valid, but this could be because career development programs are geared toward younger team members.
Strategies for Managing an Aging Team
Follow these eight strategies to manage an aging team effectively:
1. Exploding Myths
Many concerns that managers have about working with older people are based on assumptions, rather than on fact. For example, there is a common belief that aging team members take a lot of time off sick, but research from the U.K.'s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that people over 50 are less likely to be absent from work. And, although many older people have a disability, some are temporary, and the CIPD suggests that most of these conditions require only minor workplace adjustments.
According to another study by the Center for Retirement Research, common stereotypes about older people's productivity, commitment and flexibility are also false. In fact, aging team members can be just as productive and motivated as their younger counterparts, and sometimes even more so.
Most of us believe that we are unbiased, and that we base our decisions on fact rather than on stereotypes. However, everyone makes subconscious assumptions and judgments. The key to dealing with negative beliefs about working with older people is to unravel any myths. Here are some suggestions from Ernst & Young that you can use with your team:
- Acknowledge that everyone has certain unconscious biases.
- Become aware of your own beliefs by evaluating your own actions daily.
- Develop mentoring relationships with people who have more experience.
- Recognize individual capabilities and talents.
- Seek regular feedback on your own behavior from trusted colleagues.
2. Create a Positive, Safe Work Environment
Older team members can sometimes feel excluded from office culture, particularly when their colleagues are much younger. This can create a gap between the generations and lower productivity.
So, ensure that you create a safe working environment where everyone feels valued, accepted and included. Make sure that you're aware of your own behavior, and that you've identified any biases that might make people feel excluded. And, you can empower others by giving them responsibility and asking for their input, so that they feel trusted and valued.
In the U.S., the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSAH) ensures that organizations provide a safe workplace for every employee. Visit their website for more information on how you can ensure that your workplace is appropriate for all team members.
3. Deal With Resentment From Younger Colleagues
When younger people are concerned that older colleagues are taking their jobs or blocking their chances of promotion, it's important to address these assumptions and reassure your team members that everyone has an opportunity to progress.
You could also create mentoring roles for older team members, so that they can continue their work while giving younger colleagues a chance to learn from their skills and knowledge.
4. Improve Relationships
You can improve your relationship with older team members by respecting experience and remaining a strong leader. Use the following three approaches to build trust between generations:
- Ask for feedback and opinions. When you work with someone who has more experience and knowledge than you, make an effort to ask for his or her input and insights. You can improve your understanding and gain knowledge, and people will feel appreciated and valued.
- Remember that you are in charge. Working with an older team member can be intimidating, but it's important for people to respect the team's hierarchy. So, don't be afraid to direct and instruct your team members. If you need guidance, consider asking your organization's HR department for support.
- Focus on team goals. When everyone focuses on the team's shared interests, rather than its differences, it's easier to motivate people to work together. Satisfying your customers' needs is the priority.
5. Maintain Flexibility
Research from the AARP shows that the number of working women over age 55 is increasing, and that they may struggle to balance family responsibilities with work. Flexible working hours, along with support from managers, can help people with caregiving responsibilities. This can also increase job satisfaction, reduce absenteeism, and build trust between organizations and team members.
Bear in mind that team members of any age may need flexibility, so don't assume that these requirements are age-related. You could consider providing everyone with options such as job-sharing, term-time working, voluntary reduced or compressed hours, career breaks, or flexibility in where people work.
6. Involve Your Organization's HR Department
Older people may be reluctant to discuss personal concerns that affect their work, such as health issues. So, consult your organization's HR department, and consider encouraging a staff representative or union member to become a bridge between older and younger team members.
7. Provide Support
It's important to encourage every team member to reach their maximum performance and productivity levels, regardless of age. So, consider developing a support program to deal with workload and staff satisfaction issues. This should be based on the current reality and what you estimate people's workload will be in the future, and it should make your expectations clear for each person's performance.
It's important to be particularly sensitive and supportive with older workers, says Giselle Kovary of N-Gen People Performance in her article, Managing Performance of "Experienced" Employees, especially if there is an age-related mental or physical decline that is affecting their performance.
8. Listen and Adapt
Every individual has different needs and working preferences. So, don't assume that everyone wants to slow down, reduce their hours, or leave work as soon as they reach retirement age.
Consider how you might be able to accommodate these common requests from older workers:
- The opportunity to use existing skills and experience.
- A worthwhile job.
- Flexible leave arrangements.
- Valued financial benefits.
- A participative and friendly work culture.
- Flexible working arrangements.
By being proactive and recognizing the value of all of your people, you can bring out the best in your aging team members. This will ensure that everyone is productive, cooperative and happy at work, regardless of their age.
Despite the stereotypes about older team members, many people can and do want to contribute to the workforce as they get older. By making sure that you're aware of individual needs, as well as age-related biases within your organization, you can manage a group of people of diverse ages in a way that will benefit them throughout their working lives.
Apply This to Your Life
The Age Positive Campaign promotes flexible working arrangements as people age. The U.K. government also produces good-practice guides and case studies of exemplary employers. You can use them as a template for your own organization.
Finally, if you're nearing retirement age yourself, start thinking about your options. What do you need? Look at your values, family situation, interests, and finances to see if continuing to work would benefit you. Consider your willingness to take on new projects, engage in training, and stay current with technology. And if you decide to stay, make sure you're visible. Then everyone else can appreciate your skills and experience too!