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Getting Gray To Stay

NOT LONG AGO many employers looked askance at older workers, figuring they lacked the drive and imagination of their youthful cohorts. And besides, went the reasoning, younger people would work for less money.

But we are entering a period in which the fastest growing workplace segment will be 55- to 64-year-olds. By 2015, according to the American Association of Retired Persons, one of every five employees will be at least 55. That's an increase of 10 million people in an age group that now accounts for 14 percent of employees.

Now that workers are getting older and their replacements are getting scarcer, keeping those older workers happy is more important than ever. What can you do to retain your own? Here's what workplace psychologists say:

Eliminate Stereotypes

Start by making sure your own supervisors worship no false gods of youth. Everyone must come to a fresh understanding about the value of mature employees.

"Employers will have to change their attitudes toward older workers," says Harriet Hankin, president of CGO Consulting Group, Malvern, PA, and author of a book titled The New Workforce (See the box on next page, "Get More Information"). "Researchers have discovered no evidence of a linkage between age and job performance. Indeed, it turns out that older workers have a stronger commitment to quality, experience lower turnover, take fewer days off, are not as tardy and have excellent judgment based on years of experience." And recent studies by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) found that, compared-with their younger counterparts, older workers had a higher level of commitment to the organization.

Motivate Older Workers

While younger workers may often be motivated by high salaries and the possibilities of advancement, these may not be the primary concerns of mature workers. "Older workers need to feel respected, appreciated and supported," says Ian Jacobsen, a Sunnyvale, CA-based workplace consultant. "While these elements are keys to success with all workers, they are especially important when people are no longer working strictly for economic reasons. When work is competing with family interests and leisure pursuits, the psychic rewards become paramount for retention and motivation."

Older workers are often motivated by respect, not money.

If money does not motivate many older workers, what does? The best way to find out, suggests one human resources expert, is to ask. Try a straightforward question such as "Why do you still want to work?"

Be prepared for a surprise answer and a resultant change in your motivational tactics. An AARP survey found that workers over 45 most desired a friendly work environment (94 percent); respect from coworkers (90 percent); opportunities to use their skills and talents (94 percent); to do something worthwhile (91 percent); to learn something new (88 percent); to help others (86 percent) and to pursue something they've always wanted to do (75 percent).

Those answers suggest fundamental differences in motivation that you need to understand. For example, an individual who wants to leave a good mark on the world might be motivated by assignments to mentor younger employees in areas such as good communications skills, winning sales techniques and productive work habits.

After an interval of time, find out if the worker is getting the rewards desired. Make a point to return to the subject of motivation time and again. Feedback from workers will provide valuable clues on techniques to interact with them and offer incentives that motivate them to stay with your business.

And don't overlook mentoring as a way of boosting workplace performance and job satisfaction. Successful managers, says Hankin, understand that generations can mentor each other. "We have found, for example, that the World War II generation matches nicely with the "millenials" now entering the workforce. Younger workers can train older ones on newer software systems while older workers can provide a sense of history and judgment and wisdom in solving problems."

Introduce Flexible Policies

Both flexible work schedules and phased retirement can work well, says Jacobsen. Older workers who want more time with family or outside interests may welcome part-time schedules that may include employer-sponsored health insurance. (Note: Be sure to clear any policy changes with your attorney to avoid any appearance of age discrimination.)

Age-friendly flexibility can take other forms. Flex time allows workers to start their eight-hour workdays at any hour. Job sharing allows two employees to share the same position, working with each other to coordinate schedules. Short-term projects and special assignments allow individuals who wish to retire to continue contributing to your business.

Resolve Conflicts with Younger Bosses

Conflicts may arise when older workers report to younger bosses. Move quickly to resolve these problems if they arise in your workplace.

The younger supervisor should invite the older employee to a private meeting to discuss friction and resolve the issue through mutual understanding. (For real-world counseling examples, see the box, "Younger Boss, Older Worker.")

Communication is the key. "There is no reason why older and younger workers cannot get along when they respect each other," says Jacobsen. "It is important to communicate your respect and care for the other person, and the fact that you want to improve the relationship. If this message comes across, age usually melts as an issue."

Employers who fail to create work environments friendly to older workers will find them jumping ship for organizations that do. Don't you make that mistake. The tips in this article should help you overcome the challenge of the aging workforce by capitalizing on the benefits available from mature workers.

Be a successful employer who addresses the relevant issues of workplace attitudes, mutual respect, flexibility and conflict resolution. Your mature workers will stick around to lend their expertise and energy to your business.

Younger Boss, Older Worker

Age differences can spark misunderstandings between bosses and subordinates. How can you handle them? To find out we ran two common scenarios by Ian Jacobsen, a Sunnyvale, CA-based consultant who has devoted more than 20 years to resolving workplace issues.Here are his suggestions:

Scenario #1: "The New Boss." You are a 24-year-old who will be taking a position senior to Bob, who is 55. What steps might you take to obviate difficulties?

Jacobsen: "I would set up a one-on-one meeting with Bob to get to know him. I would ask what matters to him in his relationship with his boss. I'd ask him to describe the best boss he has worked for, and the worst, and what each did to earn that reputation. I would tell Bob what I could do to try to make life easier for him and bring out the best in him. I would explain what is important to me as a boss and my expectations of him."

"I would then schedule weekly feedback sessions for the first month to discuss how the relationship is working out for each of us, and then go to monthly sessions. In my interactions with Bob I would endeavor to make him feel that what he was doing was important, and that I respected and appreciated what he was doing.

"If problems arose, I would explain what happened from what I knew, ask for his take on the situation and work with him to correct the problem. Using this approach I would try to demonstrate to Bob that I was a good person to work for, no matter what my age."

Scenario #2: "Troubling Rumors." You have overheard gossip that Wilma, an older worker, does not like working for you because you are too young. What steps should you take?

Jacobsen: "I would not initially confront Wilma directly on the gossip. Instead, I would meet with her to get feedback on how things were going. I'd ask, "What do I do that helps you get your job done? What do I do that makes your job more difficult? What would make a difference to you if I changed?"

"Then, as with Bob, I would set up subsequent feedback times to find out how things are going. If the gossip persisted I would then confront Wilma and say, 'Wilma, what's going on? I've been asking you for feedback on how I am doing as your manager, and I have been making every effort to adjust what I do to bring out the best in you. Yet, I keep hearing persistent comments that you don't like working for me. Is the gossip correct? What does it take to earn your respect?'

"If, after the manager's best efforts, Wilma is still complaining, the manager should take action. I'd say, 'Wilma, I can't afford to have someone on my team who feels about me the way you seem to. It is not good for anyone, so I am letting you go."

Phillip Perry

([email protected]) is a business writer who has spent more than 20 years writing about workplace psychology, employment law and marketing.

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