Health and Healthcare Systems

An ageing workforce isn't a burden. It's an opportunity

Londoner Sydney Prior, who worked at a home-improvement store until he was 96.

Londoner Sydney Prior, who worked at a home-improvement store until he was 96. Image: REUTERS/Simon Newman

Jo Ann Jenkins
Chief Executive Officer, AARP
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Our world is changing constantly and at an increasingly rapid pace. We’re at a unique time in our history when increased longevity is converging with unprecedented technological innovation to disrupt ageing in ways previously unimaginable – empowering us to choose how we want to live as we age.

Today, Japan is the only country in the world where those aged 60 and over represent 30% or more of the population. By 2050, 62 countries – including China – will reach that milestone.

We live in a world where people age 60 and over will soon outnumber children aged five and under. Demographers predict that in countries that are ageing well, more than half the children born today will live to 100 – and some researchers believe that the first person who will live to the age of 150 has already been born.

In 2030 – only 11 years from now – the first millennials will start turning 50, and the first gen-Xers will turn 65. At the end of 2030, the first boomers will begin turning 85, swelling the ranks of what is already the fastest growing age group in the US.

Yet, global ageing is about much more than demographics. Advances in research and technology are driving innovation in virtually every field that affects our ability to live well as we age. Science is making longer lives possible – and as people live longer, they are continuing to learn, to be productive and to contribute to society.

For many people, that means continuing to work. A key part of the retirement model that most of us have grown up with is freedom from work. Today, a key part of extended middle age is the freedom to work. More and more, people want to keep working past traditional retirement age because they want to continue to contribute to society and find meaning in their own lives – and work does that for them.

All of this is having a disruptive influence in the workplace. In the US, for example, employees old enough to retire now outnumber teenagers in the workforce for the first time since 1948.

Despite these exciting developments, most conversations around ageing still view it as a problem to be solved. And the solutions are all an effort to avoid the “international crisis” that is global aging.

It’s a premise that is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and millions of people are proving it wrong every day. The conversation can’t be about how to avoid a crisis; it needs to be about how to take advantage of the opportunities we have so that we as individuals, organizations and nations can thrive.

This is especially true in the workplace. The five-generation workforce is an emerging reality. In order to maintain economic growth, employers and governments must recognize the productive opportunity of older workers.

One of the biggest challenges they face is addressing the issue of ageism. In 2017, we released the AARP Ageing Readiness and Competitiveness Report (the ARC Report). We examined the preparedness levels of 12 nations in addressing the profound challenges their societies and economies face as their number of people aged 60 and over more than doubles over the next generation.

The countries were: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

One of the findings in our ARC Report is that ageism and misperceptions of older adults among employers is the primary barrier faced by older people to remain in or re-enter the workforce. It is prevalent across both high-income and middle-income countries.

What are some of these negative stereotypes and misperceptions? Older workers can be seen as poor performers, difficult to get along with, untrainable, unable to use technology, resistant to change and too expensive to keep around. They are often seen to lack marketable skills or perceived to have less potential to progress.

But we’ve also learned at AARP that when we fight ageism and challenge outdated beliefs and stereotypes an age-diverse workforce can be a strength. Each generation – including older, experienced workers – has different ways of working and putting their skills to use. Mentoring and reverse mentoring can boost morale and productivity. Older workers can bring institutional knowledge and perspective, social maturity and stability, and can pass on critical knowledge or business relationships to younger workers. Younger workers can bring a more collaborative mindset and can help older workers to become more digitally literate.

An age-diverse labor force also leads to better performance. According to a study by AARP and AON Hewitt, the 50+ segment of the workforce continues to be the most engaged age cohort across all generations. They demonstrate the emotional and intellectual involvement that motivates employees to do their best work and contribute to an organization’s success. Moreover, it only takes a 5% increase in engagement to achieve 3% incremental revenue growth.

Combating ageism also means changing the outdated perception of older people as technophobes. AARP’s latest research on technology adoption among people 50 and over shows a lot of promise – it’s now prevalent across all 50+ age groups. Seventy per cent own a smartphone – and are on social media. Text messaging is also gaining in popularity. There are still some issues around trust and privacy, but signs are promising overall.

We can’t think about the workplace without thinking about the marketplace. In the US, for example, the 106 million people aged 50 and over comprise a Longevity Economy that accounts for over $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity. By 2032, that number is expected to rise to over $13.5 trillion. This Longevity Economy is now larger than that of any country except the United States and China.

The US is not alone in this. National Seniors Australia estimates that total household spending among older age groups? in Australia will grow from $4 billion in 2016 to $11 billion in 2035. And, they found that if they could increase the labor force participation of people over 50 by 10%, it would add $16 million in spending to their economy.

But, just as myths and misperceptions about older workers hinder employers' efforts to retain, hire and manage an age-diverse workforce, the myths and misperceptions about older consumers also hinder companies' and other organizations' ability to effectively market to and provide products and services to this growing and increasingly influential market.

This ties in directly with the contributions of older workers in the workforce. After all, how can you reach and serve this market effectively if you don’t have at least some people like them – who understand their wants, needs, and lifestyles – in your workforce?

So what can we do to better manage and nurture a five-generation workplace? There is a role for everyone in this – what I call the 3Ps:

1. Personal – Individuals have a responsibility to keep themselves employable.

2. Private – Employers have a responsibility to provide opportunities for older workers to remain on the job, to learn and to grow, to not limit recruiting only to younger workers, and to implement policies and procedures that are fair and address the needs of all employees, regardless of age.

3. Public – Governments at all levels need to enforce policies against age discrimination, look at policies around unemployment, and job retraining to ensure that older workers who lose their jobs get the skills and help they need to find new ones.

Most importantly, we need to change the mindset – change the conversation around growing older – to recognize the value and potential contributions of an ageing population to address our broader economic and societal objectives. Older employees not only address their need for financial resilience and continued engagement in society, they add economic and social value to all aspects of society and can be a major asset to employers.

The five-generation workplace is an emerging reality. We can’t change the demographic trends, but we can change how we respond to them. By embracing the five-generation workplace, we can turn these disruptive demographics into productive possibilities for employers and employees alike.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsJobs and the Future of WorkEconomic GrowthBusiness
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