For those of us who have watched technology take over the workplace over the past several decades, the pace of change and learning required can be more than a little daunting. It can be hard not to feel inadequate alongside younger generations who were born with a mousepad at their fingertips. However, just because a more mature member of the team isn’t quite as IT savvy as the millennials in the building does not mean those team members are irrelevant. Far from it.
When it comes to skills, I would like to suggest that this cuts both ways. My own grandfather continued to work in the aerospace industry into his 70s. Despite the changes that were happening all around him, he was admired for experience that had been built up over many years. He could craft something out of metal with ease – and without the requirement for a tooling division.
As Laura L. Carstensen PhD, Professor of Psychology and the founding director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity, puts it, the challenge today is to build a world that is just as responsive to the needs of the old as the young.
In her article Growing Old or Living Young Laura explains that the 20th century has witnessed two profound changes in regions of the world where people are well educated and science and technology flourish: Life expectancy nearly doubled, and fertility rates fell dramatically. As a result, individuals and populations are ageing. Genetically speaking, we are no smarter or heartier than our relatives were 10,000 years ago, she states. Nonetheless, in practical terms we are more biologically fit than our ancestors. We also have just as much to offer in our later working lives as the elders of those ancient communities who were revered for their wisdom and knowledge.
Attitudes are beginning to change a little. The media may have us believe that an ageing population will bankrupt the healthcare system and sap funds from our pension schemes. However, in order to grasp the benefit of age and experience in a very tangible way, we only have to look at how influential David Attenborough is at 95 as he shares his considerable knowledge of our planet to inform the debate on climate change.
From a practical point of view, it seems to make complete sense to embrace our mature and experienced assets in a way that helps everyone. With so many vacancies in so many different areas of our economy, we want and need our older generations involved. Some (not all) may struggle with new IT but they are still capable of working; more than capable. They are valuable and we will reap considerable benefits by making sure our culture embraces this and does not make them feel as if they are pointless.
Let us go back to the office for a moment and address one of the debates that is currently attracting headlines and HR policies left, right and centre. The menopause. This stage in life may be linked to age and gender in some respects but the key focus should be more general than that. If someone is having a hard time, how can we make things easier for them? If someone is struggling to get to grips with new technology, whatever their age, how can we support them? If an ambitious millennial is anxious to be involved in strategic decision making, what can they learn from a long serving employee mentor? If an entrepreneur wants to break into a new market, how could an established company director share her experiences to make the journey a little easier?
What we are talking about here is not new. It is not even innovative. It is what we have always referred to as the culture of teamwork.
You may also be interested to read another article I have written about bias in the workplace and how culture change can help businesses hold onto the talent offering of more mature members of staff by maintaining their enthusiasm to add value. https://boardside.co.uk/2021/08/31/the-midlife-crisis-workplace-ageism-and-the-over-55s/
Richard Port is Principal Solicitor at Boardside, supporting boards with their employment and cultural policies at a strategic level. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com