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The last little bit: strategies for maximizing value of older workers

Posted by Jeff Kirschner

Jeff Kirschner

As we look at employment trends in the U.S., the specter of baby boomer retirement looms as an unresolved question for many organizations. How will they replace the leaders who have driven their success up to this point? Their leadership bench often seems thin, and organizations find themselves in competition for the same small pool of potential leaders, driving up prices for talent acquisition from the outside. While organizations recognize the value of developing their own talent pools, that long-term strategy may not address their short-term staffing needs.

There are also issues aplenty for older workers. Many of them find their skill sets less relevant in the modern business context. Discrimination against older workers may limit their options, and their values may not be aligned with their company’s direction. For the age 50+ worker, their motivation may shift from thinking about climbing the corporate ladder to figuring out how they will spend the time that they have left until retirement. They can find themselves fighting for relevance in a fast moving and constantly changing business environment.

For companies and workers, here are some strategies for maximizing value of the last little bit:

  • Be a lifelong learner. When I ask older workers what they do about their own learning and development, I often hear the response, “very little.” Ongoing development is a shared responsibility between workers and organizations. The organization should set expectations for annual learning goals, and provide resources for individual development. The worker needs to push themselves out of their comfort zone to acquire much needed new skill sets in order to keep themselves relevant and in demand. Development does not stop at age 50, and acquiring new learning is as energizing for older workers as it is for younger ones.
  • Transfer knowledge. Erik Erikson, the great psychologist, theorized about the stages of human development. For older adults, he wrote about the choice of generativity vs. despair, whether adults would be able to pass on their knowledge to a new generation or fall into regret about how they have spent their time. For organizations, this may require setting up systems to codify and manage tacit knowledge of older workers, lest they lose the value of this information. Other options to leverage the wisdom of older workers include mentorship programs, utilizing leaders as teachers in training programs, and establishing team coaching positions to help pass along the lessons of experience.
  • Get creative. There are many different work models that can create mutually satisfactory environments for older workers and organizations. Part-time work may be an attractive option to help workers transition into their next life stage. Establishing ongoing consulting relationships can be another way to keep highly valued employees connected to the organization. As the unit of work shifts from the job to the project, attaching senior level workers to projects might be a good way of transferring knowledge to younger workers. Older workers greatly appreciate acknowledgement of their contributions, and younger workers are eager to gain the information that they need to drive their own career growth.
  • Embrace changing technology. There is no denying the fundamental revolution that the use of technology has driven in our work life. For example, the use of social media represents a powerful new way of reaching relevant communities. However, many older adults have yet to leverage this communications channel. Rather than decrying this change, older workers will need to learn to utilize these technologies in new ways to maintain their marketability. For organizations, providing training and resources for skill acquisition will help them drive productivity. Additionally, utilizing technology to set up virtual work relationships may help older workers continue to contribute from remote locations, minimizing travel and improving work-life balance.
  • Have a plan. For organizations, it is important to create a formal succession management plan that identifies potential successors for key roles. This will enable them to prepare candidates by ensuring that they have the needed experience and competencies to hit the ground running in their new positions. For individuals, it is equally important to have a life plan. Setting tangible goals and implementing plans to accomplish those goals is fundamental to their ongoing success. Organizations can help support these efforts by providing consulting help for older workers for financial and retirement planning.

The wisdom, energy and knowledge of older workers represent an underutilized resource in today’s organizations. By adopting some of the strategies outlined above, organizations and individuals can partner to make the most of older workers’ final working years before retirement, helping to revitalize their careers and add more value to the teams within which they work.


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1 Comment

  1. Tathagat

    December 18, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    The only disagreement I’d have is that this is not just for the 50+ but the 30+ should already start thinking it inside their minds, and the 40+ should have a few ‘experiments’ running on – e.g., to test and understand what works for them. Regarding the strategies, you are spot on!

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