An unprecedented shift in the age distribution, in Australia and globally, is one of the biggest workforce challenges of the 21st century. Employers will have little choice but to adapt because of three factors converging: the boomer generation is reaching 65; we have increased life expectancy; and we have declining birth rates. Certainly in New Zealand there is evidence that many baby boomers are already staying on, with the percentage of over-65s in employment set to rise from 12 per cent in 2006 to 23 per cent by 2028.
As a recent report in New Zealand, The Business of Ageing, Ministry of Social Development 2011, concluded: “over the next 40 years we are simply not going to have enough new workers to replace the baby boomers as they eventually exit the workforce.” Back in Australia the federal treasurer Wayne Swan also concluded that: “along with climate change this [ageing population] is the most significant challenge we face. It’s an inter-generational, economic, and social challenge.”
With the right organisation, transitioning employees can produce a positive outcome. The Staying On program is a whole organisation approach focused on culture change, retention, engagement and productivity. Along with these three sub-themes the core message to staff of all ages being: “we want you to stay on, be engaged and contributing, be healthy and if you do leave we want you to stay connected.”
What should we do?
The primary response to skill shortages is often to look externally. In the case of some occupations, like nursing, one approach has been to create a tiered workforce based on qualifications.
The highly regarded social anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson and social entrepreneur Marc Freedman have both written extensively about the emerging life phase where people want to stay in work longer but on different terms.
Bateson is calling for a new conversation on how we organise and structure it and how we engage people at different life stages. Freedman is focused on work that “combines purpose, passion and a paycheck”. What is clear is that many of the approaches will not suffice, but The Staying On program is starting a discussion that challenges traditional human resource practices.
The importance of staff retention
Staff need to take responsibility for their health and wellbeing alongside the organisation instituting well-constructed wellbeing programs that have been shown to have a high return on investment. The third theme, Staying Connected, emerged as we looked at ways of retaining access to the wealth of experience and knowledge built up by staff.
We also knew that many younger staff stayed for around two years before heading off overseas. The online Staying Connected alumni group is aimed at keeping in touch with ex-staff so that some may return to the organisation in the future, with added experience.
When it came to flexibility in employment we found that the New Zealand government department had many of the flexi-work options already in its policies and agreements. Often, the first response of human resource practitioners is to write a policy. What we did was list everything we would like to see in place and found that approximately 80 per cent was already possible. What was missing was a single framework that people could access and easily understand so we created a simple guides for staff to use and put it in one place on the intranet.
Another area needing to be re-thought is succession planning and career management. Much of our current practice is predicated on assumptions about our workforces that will increasingly be redundant. With older people staying on and the de-layering of hierarchy, those promised opportunities for progression will possibly not arise as they did in the past. On the other hand if older staff do move from line positions, this can be seen as a signal to them that they in the departure lounge.
The most significant components of the program has been reframing conversations. Focus group participants told us that people did not find it easy to talk about career intentions, health and productivity with older staff because of generational barriers. One of the unintended benefits of the branding Staying On is that it is age neutral; a staying on conversation with a young graduate may be just as important to have as one with a 55-year-old manager.
Organisations that are serious about becoming age friendly should first take stock. They should look at their key demographics, audit their people policies for age-friendliness and survey staff on their intentions. Bringing this information together in one place along with other information, such as engagement surveys which can be an effective means for engaging strategically with senior management and creating a platform for change.