Value from older workers

 By Jane Garcia

It’s time to stop seeing only the challenges of the ageing workforce and start seeing the opportunities the situation creates.

This is the message of IBM Global Social Segment’s Brian Lee-Archer – who has more than 10 years’ experience social services at IBM and previously worked in government for about 12 years – and Michael Dixon, the company’s Global Business Services Managing Partner for Public Sector across the Asia-Pacific.

Mr Lee-Archer says the ageing workforce is often talked about as a problem or a crisis, but it really goes back to the question of: is the glass half full or is it half empty?

“You can look at this as ageing is a good thing. We should all be happy about this because we are getting older, we are going to live longer and we’re going to be a lot healthier in that older age,” he says.

“The challenge around the ageing workforce is not that we are getting old, but how to take advantage of the fact, turn it into an opportunity and continue with economic growth although the demographics of the population is changing.”

Mr Lee-Archer is involved with a research study with the Lisbon Council, a body promoting the Lisbon Agenda which is European governments’ response to where they’re sitting in the global economic landscape. Europe sees itself as lagging behind other countries and looking at ways to be a more productive and dynamic economy.

“One of the key issues is the ageing of the workforce. One of the things you find across Europe is the under-utilisation of the 55-to-64-year-old age group. Across the European Union the workforce participation rate of 55-to-64-year-olds is 42 per cent, in Italy that drops to as low as 31 per cent. In the US it is about 60 per cent,” he says.

European governments are very interested in investigating activation policy: how to get  older people back in to work, and the issues raised when people have been out of the workforce for some time and need re-training and education.

“Looking at a range of concepts like life-long learning, education reform, reform of labour markets to make them more dynamic and freeing them up, incentives for savings … and cultural things like changing attitudes to older workers,” he says.

“The magazines talk about 50 being the new 40 and 40 the new 30 so the same has to apply that if you don’t have that big promotion by 40 then it doesn’t matter, it still can come along.

“If you work in the public service, basically if you hadn’t made it to the senior executive services by 40 then you might say ‘that’s it, I’ve lost my chance’ and think about what you’re going to do until you’re 54 and 9 months. Those sorts of attitudes have got to change.”

In Australia, there is more workplace participation by the 55-to-64-year-old age group and the real “catch-cry for employers is the diversity of the workforce, according to Mr Dixon.

“Where once we saw an organisation enduring and bringing people in to meet its requirements, increasingly it is people themselves who come together to form groups and capabilities to pursue different opportunities and they aggregate and dis-aggregate depending on what the opportunity is, independent of the organisation in many ways,” he says.

“The impact of that is it becomes very much focussed on each individual’s ability to contribute, whether you’re a middle-aged white male or a second-generation Asian or a 30-something woman with a family. Increasingly people are dis-interested in those kinds of things and focussed on what that person can bring to the workforce.”

Mr Dixon says employers are focusing on the skills of workers, and what knowledge is lost when key people retire. Knowing where an organisations strengths and weaknesses are means both the private and public sectors will increasingly understand what training and skills people will need to enter the organisation.

This may mean significant changes to promote and facilitate life-long learning, for example, universities may have to address how they can start providing skills and re-training for 25-to-35-year-olds or even 45-to-55-year-olds, he says.

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