Evidence suggests that companies are struggling to use older workers to their full potential, according to a survey from professional services company Towers Watson. With a large rise in the number of people working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, companies are having to work out how to structure their working environment to get the best out of this section of the workforce and take advantage of the skills and experience they have to offer. However, as many as 59 per cent are not making any progress in this area according to a survey of 100 senior HR professionals and only half (50%) believe that their organisation understands the changing needs of employees across their professional lifecycle.

In 2001 there were just under 450,000 people aged 65 or over working in the UK, accounting for 1.6 per cent of the working population. Today that number has more than doubled to 1 million according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).* The ONS also estimates that by 2050 there are likely be 19 million people aged 65 or over living in the UK and it is anticipated that many will want, or need, to continue working beyond that age.

Yves Duhaldeborde, director of employee surveys at Towers Watson said, “The sharp increase in older workers has led to a large proportion of employees with over 40 years’ experience. With no default retirement age a significant proportion of the growing over-65 population will continue to want, or need, to work. These older workers can add huge value to organisations in terms of experience and skills but problems can arise when companies are ill-prepared to meet the needs of this group of workers, who may require more flexibility in their working life.”

Data from Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study** shows that employees in the more mature segment of the workforce – the over 50s – are more enthusiastic, resilient and connected to the goals of their organisation than their younger peers. The focus of their attention has also gradually moved away from the development of their career toward the satisfaction of their customers and the quality of services and products and there has been shown to be no reduction in engagement levels between those in their 20s and those in their 50s and 60s. However, older workers feel that organisations let them down when it comes to training and personal development, with an acknowledgement that this area is reserved for younger workers whose careers are in the ascendency.

Arvinder Dhesi, director of Towers Watson’s talent management practice said, “This is a big issue facing many industries but our research shows that very few organisations are exploring how the positive attitudes and reliability that older employees bring to the workplace can be channelled to create a competitive edge and increase business performance. HR teams can make a significant difference to the value that these employees bring to the business by identifying where these skills would make the biggest difference within the business and not be afraid to deploy them in new areas where their experience would benefit and encourage a culture that allows people to take risks and make mistakes.”

Dhesi suggests several areas where employers can support workers entering the ‘third stage’ of their careers so their organisations can continue benefiting from their experience.

Top tips for managing older workers

  1. Use their experience to train the workforce. Older workers are ideally placed to mentor younger employees and are often reliable, knowledgeable resources for companies to take advantage of. In return younger employees can provide reciprocal ‘reverse mentoring’ in areas such as technology and social media.
  2. Offering support beyond workplace management. Turning down an opportunity to roll gently into retirement in order to fulfil a passion is often frowned upon at work but also at home. Employee assistance programs can be invaluable when employees are approaching a career transition. Wellbeing strategies should also consider the differing needs of each employee age group and be adapted to meet the needs of the over 65’s.
  3. Having the freedom to take extended time-off can prove very useful for employees who are at a crossroads, trying to make important professional decisions. Offering these employees the flexibility to take a sabbatical and calmly explore different avenues should be part of the employee value proposition for older talents.