How to make the most of a multi-generational workforce

One of the biggest issues facing developed nations in the 21st century is the dramatic shift in demographics to an ageing population. The Australian Treasury’s 2015 Intergenerational Report confirmed that if projections are correct, the number of Australians aged 65 and over will close to double by the middle of the century. What implications does this have for the workforce, and how can businesses respond?

florist with elderly woman

People increasingly need, and are being encouraged to work for more years, to satisfy extended economic responsibilities and in keeping with emerging community norms. We’re moving towards a more generationally diverse collection of workers than ever before, across all sectors. With the Federal Government raising the pension eligibility age to 67, the gulf in age between new entrant Gen Z-ers and widely established Millennials, through to the growing numbers of those in the twilight of their career, can be almost 60 years.

With the inevitable discrepancies in skill types, experiences and expectations it brings, our first instinct may be to regard this as a problem or threat, however a more constructive train of thought would be how we manage this disparity productively, professionally and progressively to personal and organisational advantage. How do we identify and amplify the best competencies of each age group and bring generations together through value-adding culture and collaborative effort?

Dr Ruth Williams, a specialist in the social aspects of ageing from the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne has shared insights to understand how and why we should seek to strategically bridge the gap to strengthen our organisations, culturally and commercially:

Champion mentorship

“Mentorship programs are a great initiative and have demonstrated notable results due to their ability to encourage knowledge and skills exchange between age groups in a way which fosters mutual respect and aims to actively retain expertise within an organisation.”

“Today’s workplaces are becoming more diverse in all sorts of ways – take the greater number of older women entering the workforce for the first time as an example – so being as inclusive as possible in all areas of roles and responsibilities is vital to developing professional cultures which champion transparency, trust and sharing.

Creating mutual respect through tactics such as role modelling, shadowing and team diversity can help deliver positive insight and creativity outcomes whilst also helping dispel stereotypes, which the media have had a big hand in building up recently.

Fortunately, though it is not the norm that generations are pitted against each other in the workplace itself. Although some industries traditionally and understandably favour certain age groups more than others due to the nature of the work – think IT and Higher Education professionals – adopting a diverse and balanced hiring policy where feasible, and clearly outlining the tangible and intangible benefits to all staff, can be a great first step in integrating top-down inclusivity.”

counselling older man

Provide training opportunities for all and upskill strategically

“Lifelong learning is something of a buzz term right now, but the attitude that underpins it is real – it keeps people engaged and stimulated to the benefit of their productivity and personal development, and it supports the trend of people taking career progression into their own hands as the inevitability of automation hits home. Employer and government support in offering, incentivising and subsidising opportunities to train and upskill is therefore important for all workers, regardless of age, as is compassion and encouragement when reluctancy presents itself.

For varying reasons, employers and even the workers themselves don’t always see the value of older workers upskilling. This mindset needs to be challenged; as older workers are being encouraged to remain in the workforce for longer, they will have more years in industries where advances in technology-related knowledge and proficiency move rapidly. Skills currency is therefore important for employers of all ages.

So long as everyone is treated equally to avoid perceived favouritism towards certain groups or roles, which can create division, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that it is in employer’s interests from a qualitative, quantitative and financial standpoint to provide professional training and education. In the more casualised gig economy, although the costs are borne by the individual, the potential payoffs are the same but with the added incentive of competitive employability advantage.”

Actively address age discrimination and divisions

“Working towards the abolishment of all age discrimination, in whichever direction, via a zero tolerance policy, and away from increased conflict created by division, can lead to reductions in unproductive exchanges in the workplace and potential absences on health and wellbeing grounds. Increased collegiality means greater individual and team engagement, productivity, job satisfaction and wellbeing.”

Showcase and sustain softer skills

“Soft skills are increasingly one of the most sought-after traits for employers because they can be layered on top of technical capabilities to form more balanced, flexible and collaborative team members.

Skills such as communication, relationship building, conflict resolution, resourcefulness, accountability and even management of corporate politics are key in a world of work constantly in flux, but they can’t often be acquired or fast tracked through training alone. They take time and practice to develop effectively, which is why mature aged workers typically have a greater pool of professional and personal experience to call upon in these areas.

Companies that successfully showcase these skills can benefit two-fold; firstly by way of confidence-building value for those imparting their experience, and secondly from retention of knowledge, techniques and networks within the organisation once shared.”

With special thanks to:

  • Lecturer – Master of Ageing, Dr Ruth Williams, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, the University of Melbourne


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