Employing older staff

With average life expectancies increasing, birth rates falling and the pension system under more and more strain, most of us have accepted that we will be working further into our old age than previous generations.

Indeed, in the wake of Lord Turner’s report into pensions earlier this year the UK Government has published a White Paper that proposes raising the age at which people receive their state pensions to 68 by 2044.

Given the implications of the publicised pensions crisis, it’s not surprising that the Government has been swift to act. In March, Trade & Industry Secretary Alan Johnson announced new laws, which will come into effect on 1 October, relating to age discrimination in the workplace. These include a ban on age prejudice that relates not just to recruitment but also to promotion and training, the axing of enforced retirement ages below 65 and the introduction of the right for workers to request continued employment beyond the usual age of retirement.

However, the motivations for this move transcend the issue of pensions. Announcing the changes, Johnson commented that, ‘As we are living longer and healthier lives, it’s essential that the talents of older workers are not wasted. We must have the opportunity to carry on working if that is what we want. In five years the Government will review all retirement ages to see whether the time is right to abolish them altogether.’

Benefit from the grey-haired brigade

The assumption is that we will remain healthier for longer and will be both physically willing and financially compelled to remain in employment for longer. For UK companies, this represents an opportunity.

‘Businesses are in need of a bit of a mind-set shift,’ reasons Alan Redman of occupational psychology consultant Criterion, ‘but there’s a real pool of talent out there to be tapped, usually because older workers can find it difficult to find suitable roles. Older employees often work harder, show more commitment and are more conscientious than many of their younger colleagues.’

There’s anecdotal evidence to support this assertion. Several years ago The Halifax decided to experimentally staff six of its branches with a more mature workforce than previously and saw each branch significantly boost profitability in subsequent months.

The likes of B&Q and ASDA have also taken a lead in investing heavily in the recruitment of older members of staff, with B&Q’s chief executive Ian Cheshire explaining that, ‘There are clear business benefits to employing a workforce that is age diverse and reflects our customer profile. We have found that older workers have a great rapport with the customers, as well as a conscientious attitude and real enthusiasm for the job. We firmly believe that our active policy of recruiting older workers has directly contributed to the ongoing success of our business.’

According to Mark Bloxham from recruitment firm Adecco, the message is clear. ‘We’re obviously always on the lookout for a talented pool of candidates and older employees are an important resource. It’s also a ready-made solution for the skills shortage we regularly hear about. There are huge benefits to having an age diverse workforce, not least that it means you get to employ the best people for the job.’

Flexible management

But purely employing older workers isn’t necessarily the end of the story. ‘The other big consideration is how you manage people,’ Redman suggests. ‘A 21-year-old will have different aspirations and motivations to a 65-year-old and you need to take this into account.’

Adaptability is the key. The incentives a manager uses with a younger worker, which may be focused around career progression or the social elements of work, may or may not be appropriate with older employees. It’s therefore important that employers are innovative in their approach to staff motivation and tackle the topic head on by forming a strategy for recruiting older workers. After all, as the population matures, this issue is going to become more and more significant for business owners.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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