Adapting the workplace for future generations

An ageing population, technology and a global pandemic raise challenging questions about tomorrow’s workforce said experts at the Future of Ageing Conference 2020.Image shows a man in a suit holding an Apple. Behind him is the Apple logo and the slogan 'think difefrent'

“Across the G20, one in three workers is aged 50 and over and that is set to increase to four in ten in the next 20 years,” said Lily Parsey, Global Policy and Influencing Manager for the International Longevity Centre (ILC), the organisation behind the conference.

“I don't think anyone would question that we have a multigenerational workforce, or that intergenerational tension exists,” said Jodi Starkman, Executive Director of Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources hosting the online panel.

Covid-19, she said, has reignited a debate that competition for jobs will increase. 

Covid-19, an opportunity for older workers?

The reality is that the pandemic – alongside advancing technology – has empowered people of all ages to work more flexibly from home. 

“During the pandemic, more people are working from home, collaborating with people from across companies and geographies, interviewing, socializing and learning new skills, all enabled by technology,” said Starkman.

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A picture of Apple CEO Tim Cook - behind him are a set of logos from AppleShe added that it’s a myth older people can’t use technology. “It’s part of a workplace myth that older people can't use it [technology]. In reality, it is helping to democratize the workplace by supporting a wide range of employee circumstances and needs,” added Starkman. 

“As Apple's 1997 commercial said, it’s time to Think Different.”

Fellow panellist Stuart Lewis, CEO of Rest Less, a digital community for the over 50s, agrees. 

“The generation of someone turning 50 today is digitally native. There are over 12.5 million Facebook profiles over the age of 50. Jeff Bezos is in his fifties, Tim Cook leading Apple, touching 60, Tim Berners-Lee who invented the internet is in his mid-sixties, and has just gone into his new venture.”

“There is absolutely nothing around age and technology,” he added. 

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Career planning in middle life

What technology can’t do is help people develop, and adapt their career paths as they age, said fellow panellist Lucy Standing of Brave Starts.

“I’ve just done a survey of the top 16 freely available career survey tools, and they will never work,” said Standing whose not-for-profit organisation seeks to provide older employees with career change programmes.

She points to the example of an African woman in her late forties who had never worked, who Brave Starts helped place on work experience with one of the UK’s leading fashion designers and now runs her own African fabric, design business.

Lewis similarly points to the fact that many careers peak in our forties and fifties.

“Most FTSE 100 company leaders are in their fifties and sixties. Many politicians are in their sixties or seventies, and those corporate leaders will look around the boardroom [and] see lots of, uh, experienced workers,” he said. 

He added, “It is in middle management that ageism and age begin to bite.”

Brave Starts believes companies have a responsibility in this middle age to help employees to re-evaluate career paths and give them ownership to make a change. They run three-to-four-month programmes and arrange for people to spend time learning about jobs they may want to do before they quit and retrain. 

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“We find that 42% of the time people don't quit. They don't give up their job. But they do maybe drop down to three or four days a week so that they can work on a side hustle;18% do go on to do career change. Teaching, counselling, youth work.”

Standing advocates employers encourage employees, especially long-standing ones, to explore options. “There is a clear relationship between tenure and engagement in work. The longer you’re in a job, the more likely you are to be bored.”

Those options might be spending time in another department, which will in turn break down silos, or taking time out to explore other career paths. “Monzo is a great example of this. They give their employees 30 days off every single year to do whatever it is that they want to do next to build that next career. You can imagine what that probably does for their employee proposition,” said Standing.

She added, “It doesn't cost much money compared to expensive executive coaching leadership development coaching. And what do you also do?”

Innovating to tackle ageism in the workplace

ILC has launched a consultation paper to look at innovations designed to support an ageing workforce. 

“Work for Tomorrow is a two-pronged approach; the consultation paper and international innovations competition, which will seek to identify and reward the most promising innovations in this space,” explained Parsey. 

The consultation paper explores four key elements of an ageing workforce:

  • Maintaining good health
  • Building knowledge, skills, and competence
  • Addressing discrimination and supporting diversity
  • Adapting the workplace

Parsey explained the detail behind each of the areas, starting with good health. 

“We know poor physical health, or poor mental health, is one of the key barriers[and] way too many of us drop out of the workforce early,” said Parsey citing caring responsibilities as a factor that contributes to mid-life stresses. 

“In the context of an ageing society, we're much more likely to be providing care,” she said. “Often, we'll find ourselves with multiple caring responsibilities at the same time; you know, the term sandwich carers. We might be caring for a parent at the same time as caring for children. There has to be more flexibility because again, otherwise, we are just going to lose out on talent,” said Parsey. 

There is also a need to tackle ageism, and to embrace technology.

“The pandemic is an accelerator in this space and has shown employers that people can be productive even if they're working from home,” she said. 

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