Although we have an ageing population, AHRI and the AHRC’s research reveals the age at which we consider someone an ‘older worker’ is getting younger. Find out what else HR thinks about employing older workers.
Unstimulated and underwhelmed with the mundanity of retired life, 70-year-old Ben Whittaker, a former business executive, decides to re-enter the workforce as an intern at an e-commerce fashion startup in popular comedy drama, The Intern.
His overworked and harried CEO, Jules Ostin, initially doesn’t take warmly to Whittaker, but a close friendship soon ensues between them when Ostin begins to appreciate the valuable skills that an older employee like Whittaker brings to the workplace.
Whittaker’s unwavering loyalty, mentoring skills and ability to remain calm under pressure are characteristic of many older workers, it turns out.
In a recently released survey of 604 HR leaders, academics and business leaders, conducted by the Australian HR Institute and the Australian Human Rights Commission, professional knowledge, experience and age diversity emerged as the main advantages of employing older workers in 2021.
Other advantages mentioned by respondents in the survey – entitled Employing Older Workers 2021 – include loyalty, maturity in dealing with issues and approaching crises, and being an effective mentor.
While most HR professionals see benefit in employing older workers – perhaps they’ve been exposed to the unique skill set they bring since the composition of workers above the age of 55 has increased from 26-50 per cent in 2018 to 51-71 per cent in 2021 – half of the respondents still say they have an age above which they wouldn’t hire someone.
In addition, less than 10 per cent of organisations are proactively recruiting older workers. So why is this the case?
How old is ‘old’
We have an ageing population, yet the age at which respondents classify workers as ‘old’ is steadily getting lower, the survey revealed.
Nearly 17 per cent of respondents selected the 51-55 age bracket as ‘old’, compared to almost 11 per cent in 2018.
Survey respondent and manager of people and culture at McKay Regional Government Rod Francisco FCPHR places ‘older workers’ in an even younger age bracket – between 46-50.
“In our workplace, when I look at demographics, we have a big chunk of our workforce that is in the 45+ age bracket, and a number of them are males who work in physical roles – labourers and parks people, for instance.”
“We need to disassociate older workers from that stigma that they are leading towards retirement.” – Rod Francisco, manager people and culture, Mackay Regional Council
Although employees aged 45+ are still able to do the work, it’s around that age when Fransisco notices back and knee problems starting to emerge.
“A lot of our employees worked in environments where best practice and techniques may not have been enforced. But the younger workforce is already attuned to best practice, so they are less likely to suffer from that degradation.”
Thinking about and accounting for older workers in advance – ie, a few decades before an employee is considered ‘old’ – might therefore help to prevent problems arising down the track, he suggests.
Would you recruit an older worker?
Fewer respondents said they have an age above which they are reluctant to recruit, according to this year’s survey.
In 2014 and 2018, almost 52 per cent and just over 30 per cent of respondents respectively said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ be reluctant to recruit above a certain age, compared to approximately 27 per cent in 2021.
Nonetheless, a reluctance to consider employing older workers remains a pertinent problem, with nearly half of the 2021 respondents saying there is an age above which they wouldn’t hire a candidate. Most respondents identified this age as being over 65 or 70.
For respondents who said their organisation does initiate practices to encourage age diversity, flexible working arrangements, ensuring content of adverts attracts all age groups, and excluding the date of birth from application forms, were the most common initiatives.
Francisco says Mackay Council ensures job adverts for new positions are moving away from specifying years of experience.
“Whether you’ve done a job for 5, 10 or 15 years, we aren’t fussed. We are much more focused on capability,” says Francisco.
“We look at demonstrated experience in x, y and z. It’s not about how long you have been in the workforce; it’s what you’re capable of doing.”
What keeps older workers in your organisation?
Flexible working, job satisfaction and phased retirement ranked as the top three reasons for older workers to stay with a company.
Many respondents reported their organisation has flexible working hours (78 per cent), part-time options (68 per cent) and continued access to training and development (55 per cent) for employees in their late careers.
Regrettably, however, close to 70 per cent of organisations do not offer line management training on how to manage different generations.
“Whether you’ve done a job for 5, 10 or 15 years, we aren’t fussed. We are much more focused on capability.” – Rod Francisco, manager people and culture, Mackay Regional Council.
Despite 60 per cent of survey respondents saying older worker departures have caused a loss of key skills or knowledge, only 22 per cent of respondents’ organisations are capturing corporate knowledge from existing workers.
Through a phased transition to retirement process, Francisco says Mackay Council is ensuring younger employees inherit the vast knowledge accrued by their older counterparts.
By giving a younger worker the opportunity to shadow an older employee for a 6, 12 or 18-month period, depending on the particular role, Francisco says the younger employee can “bounce ideas off the older staff member and draw on their expertise so they can then take that experience themselves and use it going forward”.
“There are a range of experiences that older workers have been through, and that they can coach others through… they have the wisdom and experience.”
How can HR support older workers?
There are a multitude of ways in which HR can encourage diversity, and help older workers flourish. Here are a few of Francisco’s top tips:
- Where possible, consider eliminating ‘number of years’ of experience’ in job adverts. Instead, opt for including demonstrated experience in job requirements, and hire based on capabilities.
- Consider creating part-time or shared leadership roles to support older workers. “Older workers who tend to be in leadership roles can lead in different ways,” says Francisco. “An older worker might be able to say they do three days a week in the workplace, and two days in a non-for-profit that keeps them professionally engaged, but with more reasonable hours. We need to disassociate older workers from that stigma that they are leading towards retirement.”
- Take steps to support your employees’ physical and mental health in the early part of their careers. For employees who engage in physical tasks, invest in technology that doesn’t over-exert them, and teach best practice habits early. This will help to prevent problems from emerging down the track.
- Encourage your workforce to stay physically active. “The less physical you make the role, the more careful you have to be that your workforce is maintaining their wellbeing,” says Francisco.
This article presents a sample of key results from AHRI and AHRC’s research. The full report contains even more interesting insights and statistics.
Download the Employing Older Workers report.