Jobs and the Future of Work

Age diversity will define the workforce of the future. Here’s why

Workforces are set to become more age-diverse due to people living longer and retiring later.

Workforces are set to become more age-diverse due to people living longer and retiring later. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Susan Taylor Martin
Chief Executive Officer, BSI LIMITED
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  • The workforce is changing rapidly — in the coming decades, we will see greater numbers of generations in the workplace at one time.
  • Individuals and organizations at large have the opportunity to adapt to the changing requirements and opportunities of an age-diverse workforce.
  • From health and wellbeing to upskilling and reskilling, policies can be put in place to account for the coming change in the global workforce.

In recent decades, the prevailing expectation has been that careers span between 30 and 40 years, with people retiring in their 60s. That no longer holds true. Work is changing. Not just when we work, how, where or the tools we use — but crucially, who is working.

In the EU, the expected duration of working life rose 4.1 years between 2002 and 2022, and this trend is likely to continue. This is because in most major economies, populations are aging and birth rates are falling. The World Health Organization projects that the proportion of the world’s population that is over 60 will nearly double from 12% to 22% by 2050.

Even if not all those people remain in work, this will be transformative. In America, for example, a quarter of men and 17% of women over 65 are expected to still be in the labour market by 2032. In the coming decades, we will see greater numbers of generations in the workplace at one time. Of course, we are used to working alongside colleagues a few decades older or younger. But if working into our 70s becomes routine, there could be 50 years between the newest employees and those with the lengthiest experience.

That means a range of reference points, skills and life experience, altering workplace dynamics. At the same time, there are considerations around health and well-being — whether someone will still be physically equipped to do the work, or indeed whether they will want to do something different but remain productive. What’s clear is that these demographic shifts demand a response that goes beyond handwringing about how many years before we can retire.

So, the question to ask now is how can we partner across society to make the workforce work for all of us?

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Flourishing in the age-diverse workforce

To explore this subject more, BSI undertook research into what we are calling the age-diverse workforce. BSI spoke to business leaders in nine countries and seven sectors to understand their priorities; what do they think will be the ingredients for a successful future of work in light of demographic changes?

That research culminated in the Evolving Together: Flourishing in the age-diverse workforce report, which identifies clear areas for action. The desire for greater flexibility is unmistakable; for work to fit into our lives rather than the other way round. The picture this presents is exciting; a chance to collaborate across society and shape a future of work that meets all our needs, whatever our age or stage.

Some things individuals can influence. To maintain flourishing careers for five decades, we can keep our skills up to date. We can prioritize our physical and mental health. We can look to improve financial compensation based on greater experience, or seek new roles to remain challenged. But for true success in the age-diverse workforce, collaboration will be key. It’s not just about what people do, but the support we get from the organizations we work for. And about the policies that can enable organizations to best support their workforce.

More than half of business leaders from nine global markets and seven sectors found that over 50% saw maintaining health and mental well-being as a key career goal.
More than half of business leaders from nine global markets and seven sectors found that over 50% saw maintaining health and mental well-being as a key career goal. Image: BSI

A healthy and upskilled workforce

Two key areas to consider when it comes to collaboration are health and well-being and skills development. At present, more than half of UK workers have a long-term health condition by 60. This is likely to be similar in most advanced economies. Indeed, the business leaders BSI surveyed recognized that health is paramount to people remaining productive into their seventh or eighth decade — both physiological health and mental health.

Addressing this isn’t just about governments investing in health services, necessary though that may be. Organizations can introduce comprehensive workplace health or well-being programmes to help improve worker retention. They can support physical and mental health by adapting to accommodate needs that can change with age, whether in terms of provision for carers or menopause support or modifying the workplace to make it more accessible. In turn, policymakers can make it easy for employers to do this. Asked to rank policy priorities, business leaders backed tax breaks to encourage employers to invest in employee health and well-being. There are myriad forms this could take; the point is that to truly support a healthy and happy workforce requires input from across society.

The same is true when it comes to keeping skills relevant, and access to training, which are set to be critical for success in the future workforce, especially in the context of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) transformation. Training staff isn’t just about ensuring they can perform today’s jobs but preparing them for what they will need to flourish in the future and retaining talent and experience while building on it. It can take the form of courses and formal learning, but also interventions such as career reviews, which provide the opportunity to understand how older workers’ individual requirements best fit with company goals. Equally, mentoring can help improve core job skills as well as soft skills. In an age-diverse workforce, reverse mentoring programmes, where less experienced colleagues partner with more experienced ones, can help participants understand the benefits brought by both younger and older workers sharing knowledge.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about including older people in the workforce?

The role of employers and policymakers

Individuals can push for more training and seek out their own mentors, but for true impact, employers and policymakers have a central role to play. Business leaders told BSI they want government support to create the conditions needed to attract, train and retain age-diverse talent and experience — through tax benefits or other financial incentives. They prioritized financial incentives to encourage them to diversify the talent pool by recruiting older people or investing in retraining, as well as subsidies for employing workers of different ages.

The age-diverse workforce will shape work in every market and sector. Individuals, organizations and society have the opportunity to boost growth and innovation by thinking about the impact of 50-year workspans and collaborating now to develop strategies to respond. A flourishing future workforce will be one that values experience and attracts and retains staff of all ages as a result.

Business leaders made clear their desire for action now to create the conditions for that future. Whether healthcare and well-being provision, incentivizing employers to invest in training, or areas such as offering true flexibility, formalizing compassionate leave policies or providing financial guidance to those nearing retirement, there are many steps that can be taken today to ensure all of us succeed in the age-diverse workforce.

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