Older Workers Might Save Your Business

Close up of a senior businesswoman using a phone while having coffee in the office

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No matter where you get your news, it’s hard to make it through a day without reading an article about the devastating shortage of hourly and front-line workers. They are missing in action from workplaces as varied as food service, airlines, home health, gyms, office staff, and senior care. Continually trying to find them, hire them, and keep them has been a losing proposition for many business owners, and tragically has led many to downsize or close their doors permanently. What once was called “The Great Resignation” is now looking like “The Great Reshuffle” as more and more young and middle-age workers look for jobs that pay a fair wage and fulfill their image of what work should look like.

What is glaringly missing from this picture is the older worker, the 55-90-year old who is “retired” from their mid-life occupation and is looking for another income to supplement their social security, savings, and maybe a pension. Many older adults are looking at longer, healthier lives on the one hand, and on the other they are staring at skyrocketing food and gas prices that have reached levels they have never seen before. Many of them are scared and wondering how they will match an ever-smaller looking income with ever-growing consumer prices.

These older workers are different in many important ways from the 25-50-year old job seeker, and employers who are losing sleep nightly over their inability to get good help would be well served to give these older workers a serious look. In their December, 2022 article in the Harvard Business Review, Bob Kramer, Paul Irving, Jacquelyn Kung, and Ed Frauenheim paint a very compelling picture of the older worker of today and why you should hire them. Their research, which was based on a survey by Activated Insights of 35,000 older workers in the U.S. who participated in the Fortune 100 Great Place to Work Trust Index, highlighted the importance of empathy and understanding in the workplace and moving from “transactional” relationships with employees to a more empathic level of engagement.

The research resulted in the development of seven principles for attracting and retaining older, experienced workers – for any role:

1. Design Respectful and Purposeful Roles

Jobs which connect people to the mission of the company are more compelling and enable workers to connect their tasks to the company’s goals and its purpose for existence. Jobs that allow people to say “I’m needed here” and “I have the opportunity to serve the customer in an important way” are important to older workers. They have very likely spent most of their lives observing (and maybe working in) jobs that had that quality and some that didn’t. They know the difference.

2. Arrange and Enable Flexible Schedules

Older workers surveyed in the study viewed flexibility around shifts and leaves of absence as essential to their late-life work experience. Different industries have different needs for their workplace, but out-of-the-box thinking about scheduling, allowing workers to attend to important personal matters as they arise, will pay huge dividends in loyalty and willingness to go beyond expectations when the company needs them at a later time.

3. Pay for the Job, Not for the Tenure

When looking at the top 10 factors that correlate with recruitment and retention of older workers, compensation does not rank among them. More important is the focus on the value of their work and the flexibility you can offer. The researchers cite the work of Josh Bersin and Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic who argue that companies seeking older workers should stress equity by job and level, not years at the company.

4. Adapt and Accommodate Physical Challenges

Creating a good environment for older workers may entail some modest modifications to the work setting. More frequent opportunities to sit may be necessary for those who experience foot or leg pain when standing for long periods of time. Going a step further, you may want to ask your older employees what changes would make work-life more enjoyable for them. Different people have different needs. The likelihood is that when they are given the opportunity to make some changes, you will find they are more efficient than your younger workers at the same job–but in a different way.

5. Communicate Clearly and Candidly

Drawing from the survey responses, the authors note that “when leaders communicate clearly and candidly, they create a positive environment that takes full advantage of the experience of older workers.” However, your younger employees, being generally less experienced, may require some training in how to do this, especially those managing frontline workers. This investment will very likely pay off handsomely when people are taught to communicate respectfully and honestly in both directions. It builds trust and people tend to stay in a job where they are trusted.

6. Build Community and Camaraderie

A fun-loving workplace where people enjoy each others company and look forward to going to work each day is, in my opinion, the holy grail. If you get the first five of these principles right, you have set yourself up to foster this kind of community-at-work.

There are many ways to sponsor and nurture this kind of atmosphere. Picnics in the summer, Halloween costume contests, pumpkin carving, snowball fights, etc. are all ways to bring fun into the workplace, however you can manage it in your unique environment.

The flip side to building community is to grow a compassionate workplace. Allowing people additional time off during a personal crisis, celebrating births and birthdays, sending cards and flowers in time of sickness or death, are all ways to show your workers that you care, and it will promote the same kind of compassion among them as well.

7. Tackle Ageism

If you honor your workers for their contributions and talent, without regard to their age, you will be a beacon of light in an ageism afflicted world. Feature your older workers whenever and wherever you can and be a role model for anti-ageism. Be alert, too, for ageism to present itself in insidious ways and create a zero-tolerance environment in your company.

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