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Unlocking the potential of an age diverse workforce

Posted on by from Open University

The level of age diversity we’re seeing in the workplace now is unlike no other time in modern history.

While generational stereotypes are increasingly tired and unhelpful, it’s clear that the differences which do exist between generations make interaction with colleagues of all ages an enriching experience. 

But effectively managing employees of different ages is a complex task. The fact that businesses struggle to find the right skills to fill 20% of vacancies, yet still claim that they have employees whose skills are not fully used at work, tells a story.  As business needs change, so do the skills necessary to meet them, and ensuring that employees have skills that can be fully utilised is key to motivating individuals of all ages. 

The ageing workforce: a demographic reality…

Government figures suggest that job creation will outpace the number of young people entering the workforce before 2024. The working age population (16-64) will increase by half the amount needed to fill an increasing number of roles.  Skills shortages that are already plaguing businesses are only going to intensify if businesses are not able to continually engage and re-engage employees of all ages.

…and a workplace asset

According to a report by the CIPD, the exchange of skills and expertise between generations is the greatest benefit as perceived by HR professionals. This is also important for employees, with 66 per cent of the 3,000 surveyed by the CIPD citing knowledge-sharing in age-diverse teams a key benefit. Employees also answered that gaining access to different perspectives, ideas and problem-solving techniques were significant advantages. 

A good example of this in practice is the longstanding efforts from DIY chain B&Q, whose approach to employment is ‘based on a philosophy of attitude, not age’. They chose to actively recruit from all age groups and to operate without a fixed retirement age, and have commented on the wealth of experience this has brought to their teams. 

It is clearly positive to see that the benefits of encouraging multigenerational teams to work together do not go unnoticed. However, there remains a question mark over the efforts of many businesses to keep workers of all ages engaged in the work of the organisation. In the same report from the CIPD, a fifth of employers admitted that their organisation does nothing to ensure that employees of all ages develop and keep their skills up to date. 

Given the rate at which skills requirements in many businesses are changing, this must surely be a worry. If the age diverse workforce is going to be a true asset, employers must pay attention to the different learning and development needs of all their employees. Supplementing the expertise of employees, with new skills gained through training, serves greatly to enrich the interchange of ideas. 

Encouraging a culture of knowledge-sharing

Whilst a simple approach might be to offer training to staff when they come into a new role, flexible options which combine work with study allow employees to learn throughout their career. This learning model means that businesses do not experience a dip in capacity, as employees fit study around their work, and also integrates learning more closely with the workplace, contributing to a larger cultural change. Indeed, research from London Economics shows that there is a spill over from training one individual, creating a ‘halo’ education effect which benefits the whole team.   
Creating a more fundamental culture of learning will help to unlock the rich collective expertise from an age diverse workforce. So far we’ve seen great success amongst employers who facilitate employee study groups where different people from across the organisation come together to study. Bringing employees together who would not naturally meet creates a significant, long-lasting impact on the business that otherwise may have been lost. Ultimately, it encourages the exchange of ideas which is so often cited as the biggest plus point of an age diverse workforce.

Steve  Hill

By Steve Hill

Steve is director of external engagement at The Open University with responsibility for strengthening links between business and education in order to boost skills provision in the UK. Steve is an Open University graduate, who as an employer in the business world regularly sponsored employees to take training courses.

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