When we released our inaugural World Changers report earlier this year, we could never have imagined the colossal challenges waiting in the wings. Many of the trends we highlighted in the report went on to have even more resonance than predicted, as COVID-19 shifted the way we live and work.
For our Explore the trend interview series, I asked our lead behavioural scientist about our ageing workforce. Have the great strides made by many employers in boosting how included older workers feel been erased by the risk to that population from the pandemic? And as the job market contracts, what are the implications for people in older age brackets and how can employers support them?
Very different than it does today. The International Monetary Fund is predicting that the American economy will shrink by 6% this year[i], and the UK Office for National Statistics reported that the first quarter of 2020 had the largest shrinkage since 1979[ii].
This means organisations – even the slow-moving leviathans – have been forced to be much more dynamic and flexible, and look with fresh eyes at their workforce – and how they use it best.
I’d been reflecting on how many of my friends are starting families later in life, or not at all, and what that could mean for the world of work.
One insight I share in the article is that the UK government projects that over half of the UK workforce will be over 50 by the mid-2030s. So, as we generally have a declining birth rate and people are staying at work longer, we’re going to see a big impact on workplace dynamics.
Teams are doing more with less resources – less time, less energy, and fewer people. Older workers tend to have a more varied skill set which can be quite useful when employees are increasingly being asked to wear multiple hats.
Older workers have often lived through recessions and other disruptive events and remember coming out on the other side. Encountering past uncertainty and seeing that things generally worked out okay can make you better equipped to deal with new forms of uncertainty, like the world we’re all living through. So people with this life experience can reassure younger workers. Leaders should remember their value and encourage them do so.
Well, there are the obvious impacts from Covid-19. There will be some safety concerns for this group as people come back to offices, which will add another layer of complexity to return-to-work planning – and the additional support measures that may be required.
More than that, being classified as ‘vulnerable’ can subtly influence how older employees are viewed by their colleagues. Vulnerability can have connotations of ‘weak’ or ‘frail,’ which are labels no one would want applied to them at work or anywhere. We can change that narrative of vulnerable to valuable. Older workers have key skills and life experience that are of real value to businesses.
Outside of Covid-19, I see two critical areas of support. First: recognising that many employees in the over-50 bracket are often still supporting their children or pitching in with grandchildren, while also taking care of elderly parents, which can be a source of high pressure. And second: upskilling may be required as the nature of work changes and more technical and digital roles are more in-demand.