Older workers – How to utilise older workers’ resources in business?

The amount of older persons in the total population will increase significantly in the coming decades in Europe. There are many explaining factors to this development i.a. fertility rates among women has decreased, life expectancy of individuals has risen and a greater proportion of the post-war baby-boom generation is retiring. (Eurostat 2016.) This development causes that competition of skilful employees is greater between organisations in the near future when the workforce is shrinking. It means challenges for organisations to attract new employees but at the same retain their current ageing employees. HR-professionals need to find solutions to utilise resources of their older workers and find the ways to keep them longer in their service even though advanced age workers may be perceived more as a problem than as a resource for business.

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First, this essay will give insights to following concepts: older worker, old age and different definitions of age which are important to understand when concentrating on advanced age of workers. Second, elements of attitudes in work environment are presented. After that the essay concentrates to main ideas about older age workersage of workers as a problem or as a resource in business. Third, it will be showed how organisations can utilise older workers’ resources and finally, conclusions will follow.

How older worker, old age and ageing is defined?

Defining  the concept older worker is problematic. Boerlijst et al. (1998) argued that it can not be specially defined because the line that differs older worker from middle age worker is gradual and varies from sector to sector and from company to another. Some sectors reserve the term ”older” for employee who is nearing retirement, contrary to other sectors where employee can be considered old even in remarkably young age because of the nature of the job.

Traditionally old age has been perceived as the stage of life when capacities and opportunities decline rather than expand. The definition of old age depends on the characteristics of older people, who are diverse in their physical and psychological attributes. The meaning of the old age varies with the expectations and attitudes of the culture or society in which person grows old. Furthermore, individuals’ ages and stages of development affect their perceptions and definitions of old. For example a person who is 30-40 years might seem old to young child, when a middle-aged adult may think that 75 years is a starting point of old age. Finally, energetic 75-year old may view him self as ”middle-aged”. (Aiken 1995.)

Different age definitions can clarify the subjective perceptions about age. Chronological age refers to the number of years, months and days which are past from birth of a person. It itself is rarely an accurate indicator of a person’s biological, psychological or social age. When defining biological age, features such as posture, skin texture, hair colour and thickness, strength, speed and sensory acuity are taken into account. On the other hand psychological age is is defined by one’s feelings, attitudes and way of looking at things – how old one feels oneself. Finally, social age is determined by social roles and activities and whether they are considered appropriate for a person at a particular age or stage of maturity. (Aiken 1995.)

It is necessary to keep in mind all of these different ways of defining age and its subjective nature when striving forbetter understanding about age and its complexity in business environment.

In what ways can the relatively advanced age of workers be perceived as a problem and as a resource in a business?

As summarised by Stagner (1985) older workers are victims of many negative attitudes. Attitudes are certain regularities of an individual’s feelings, thoughts and predispositions to act toward some aspect of one’s environment (Secord & Backman 1969; ref. Arnold & Randall 2010). Attitudes can have serious consequences to organisation’s personal policy.

Rosenberg and Hovland (1960; ref. Solem 2012) have divided attitudes to three different elements which reflect cognition, affect and behaviour. The cognitive element is comprised of our stereotypes, beliefs and expectations applied to members of an age group based on a group membership only and not of knowledge of their individual characteristics. For example, what leader thinks is the connection between a certain age group and work skills. The affective (emotions) element reflects feelings about members of an age group based on group membership. For example, do older workers spark positive or negative emotions in us. The behavioural element, which may be the biggest concern in the workplace because it concerns discrimination; do we treat people differently solely based on their age membership? For example, employer might not consider job applications from persons that are achieved certain higher age. (Rosenberg & Hovland 1960, Solem 2012, Finkelstein 2015.)

These attitudes have consequences on how advanced age workers are perceived in business. According to Roden and Jerdee (1976; ref. Aiken 1995) older employees are believed to be slower, less able to learn new skills, more prone to accidents, less able to get along with co-workers and customers, more resistant to change and supervision, slower in making judgements, lower in physical capacity, uninterested in technological changes, untrainable, uncreative and overly cautious. Unfortunately, older workers themselves often agree with these stereotypes and may often become victims of self-fulfilling prophecies, in which they become what they are labeled to be (Aiken 1995).

In contrast to these negative attitudes of older workers, research findings show that only few age changes in performance actually occur. Older workers in average are slower than their younger colleagues, but they make up this slowness by being more cautious. (Aiken 1995.) What older workers loose in volume of their work compared to younger workers, they gain in higher quality and fewer mistakes (Hurlock 1980; ref. Aiken 1995). Some specific cognitive skills have found to decline with age e.g. short- and long-term memory. However, there is some evidence that cognitive training can improve the functioning of older workers whose cognitive abilities have declined with age. (Aiken 1995.) It can be said, that older workers are quite capable on learning new job skills, especially when training methods take their capabilities into consideration. Briefly, observed age-related declines in job performance of older workers are usually minor and more likely to occur in tasks that handle memory, are physically demanding or highly speeded (e.g. military jobs or air traffic controller). In most cases experience and motivation of the older worker compensates for any age related decline in speed or strength. (Rhodes 1983; ref. Aiken 1995; Stagner 1985; ref. Aiken 1995; Solem 2012.)

What comes to older workers’ motivation, intrinsic motivation is emphasised. Intrinsic motivation occurs when a person acts without any obvious external rewards. One simple enjoys an activity or sees it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise own potential. (Coon & Mitterer 2010.) According to Ng and Feldman (2010 ref. Salem 2012) older workers are often intrinsic motivated to work and its challenging and meaningful nature while younger workers are more motivated to their own career development (Bousmans et al. 2011; ref. Salem 2012). This age difference in motivation reflects the general tendencies of changes in values what happen when people age; In older age individuals are less concerned about external benefits and more concerned about internal values (Solem 2012; Brandstädter et al. 2010; ref. Solem 2012).

The claim that older employees are hard to get along because of personal problems is conflicted by research. Compared with younger workers, older workers are less restless, less pre-occupied with personal problems and do not sign any special difficulty in adjusting to other workers. (Aiken 1995.)

Furthermore, older workers are less ”accident-prone” and have fever illnesses and injuries than might be expected (Doering et al. 1983; ref. Aiken 1995; Turlock 1980 ref. Aiken 1995). Although, older people today are fairly healthy, as group they continue to have significantly higher rates of illnesses when compared to younger age groups (Aiken 1995). This can be seen as a disadvantage for the work teams that have older workers. Illnesses might cause a person to spend time on sick leaves and that can be problematic to person’s work team or near colleagues who need to share the person’s tasks while he/she is away.

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Ng and Feldman (2008 ref. Solem 2012) reviewed 380 studies about age effects at work that consisted of 438 independent samples. They did not find any age effects toperformance and creativity. Older workers performed a bit worse in training programmes and had a bit greater amount of absence, but less accidents and they showed more safe behaviour at work than their younger counterparts. The older workers performed better in organisational citizenship behaviour, loyalty, helpfulness towards colleagues and new-comers and they complained less about little issues. Older workers showed less counterproductive work behaviour in the form of drug using and violence behaviour. In addition, they were less absent, if sick leaves weren’t considered. The research shows that in many areas older workers can perform as good as before (Solem 2012).

Beneficial for organisations is the experience that older workers have gained, their commitment to their jobs and greater job satisfaction when compared to their younger colleagues. In addition, older workers have lower turnover rates. (Aiken 1995.) They may be the result of fewer job possibilities in the business with long work experience and/or age discrimination in recruiting and selection. Whatever the reason is, low turnover rates among older workers make huge cost savings for organisations when turnover processes are expensive.

How can businesses make arrangements so that it can best utilise older workers’ resources?

It is important challenge for organisations to find policies and practices that utilise older worker resources the best possible way to have positive outcomes to organisation performance as a whole. Because motives and some abilities of older worker change with age, the utility and effects of Human Resource (HR) practices might need to change with age as well. (Kooij & van de Voorde 2014). There are many practices which are tailored to needs of older workers and especially increasing their motivation to work longer in the organisation.

As showed earlier in this essay attitudes can have important effects, how older workers are perceived, perceive them selves and act in business. Especially leaders’ attitudes are important. When leaders have negative attitudes towards older workers’ learning abilities, creativity, physical capacity and ability to work with younger employees, the older workers act in line with these attitudes (Taylor and Walker 1998). Enhancing leaders knowledge about older workers, their performance and skills could help to change leaders’ attitudes to positive direction. This could stop older workers to act according to these negative attitudes they face and would benefit work environment and business as a whole.

Some of the utilising HR-practices are about work flexibility that can help workers to balance between the needs of work and other life areas. Flexibility concerns especially working times e.g. arranging part-time work, flexible work schedules and reduced shifts, sabbatical leaves and other additional leaves. (Paul & Townsend 1993; ref. Kooij & van de Voorde 2014.) Part-time work and reduced shifts for older workers might be a good practice in physically demanding jobs when rest is needed after demanding work tasks. It secures that good effectiveness can be reached when a person is actually working and it can help individuals to work on more advanced age. Of course individual differences and work sector must be take into consideration when thinking about reducing work hours because there can be large variations in physical abilities (e.g. good or bad condition) and work environments (e.g. factories or offices) among individuals.

Many of the older workers are mainly in career maintenance stage, so offering them opportunities for decision making, maintains their interest to work and gives them opportunities for involvement (Conway 2004; ref. Kooij & van de Voorde 2014). In addition, enriched job tasks, such as opportunities to work as a mentor or internal advisor, might increase older workers’ opportunities to participate when hierarchical development is no longer likely or valued (Farr & Rinses 2002; ref. Kooij & van de Voorde 2014). New challenges can give needed variation to work that can motivate older workers to retire later. In some cases, new tasks are needed because of the changed abilities or needs of the worker.

Older workers often have educated themselves long time ago and the old education might not be the best possible option for today’s business environment. Fast advancing technology can as well set requirements to older workers to enhance their skills on that area. With the help of training and development on the job, older workers may receive higher level of functioning (Kooij et al. 2014). HR-practices that concern training and development which are adopted to possible needs or new roles of the workers can be helpful when utilising resources of the older workers. It is found, that training opportunities which are adapted to older workers’ needs have positive influence on a person’s commitment to organisation and negative influence on early retirement. (Meyer, Allen & Smith 1993; ref. Kooij & van de Voorde 2014.)

Autonomy as well is appreciated among older workers (Kooij et al. 2011; ref. Kooij & van de Voorde 2014). Studies show that HR-practices that allow the worker possibility to control one’s own job and discretion, enhance feelings of empowerment and involvement, which in turn positively influence employees attitudes and behaviours in work. More autonomy in work tasks could be offered for older workers because they already have the needed expertise, which have accumulated during the years, to more independent way of working. (Batt 2000; ref. Kooij & Karina van de Voorde 2014.)

As presented earlier in this essay, older individuals are more prone to illnesses. That can be seen as a problem from employer side because it might bring costs for the employer and larger job responsibilities for other team members. An unhealthy older worker is not the best optionfor employer to have, so by promoting health and well-being of the workers during the whole employment in the organisation is a way to utilise the resources of their workers and especially older workers. It might be beneficial to offer employees health and wellbeing related education or training about physical health, mental health and stress coping mechanisms. Then workers would become more aware of the health risks that they might face and the causes that are in the background. This way they could do changes in their daily habits or learn new techniques to cope with possible problems. In addition, regular and with age accelerating health checks for workers are beneficial and might help to screen possible health risks in early stage and prevent illnesses and thereby long sick leaves and absences that cause costs. Different devices in work can as well support the health and well being of older workers. For example electric tables and different work chairs can be used to prevent injuries. For promoting older workers’ health, employer could also support physical training or offer places and devices for exercise.

Conclusions

The demographic change in many European countries challenges organisations to retain their employees longer in their service when the workforce is getting smaller. At the same time when older employees are required to stay longer in working life, they face many negative attitudes toward their abilities and performance. However, studies have shown that many observed age-related declines in job performance are usually minor and more likely to occur in physically demanding or highly speeded tasks. In most cases experience and motivation of the older worker compensates for any age related decline in speed or strength. (Rhodes 1983; ref. Aiken 1995; Stagner 1985; ref. Aiken 1995; Solem 2012.) Furthermore, older workers are more often intrinsic motivated, more commitment to their jobs and enjoy larger job satisfaction than their younger colleagues. In addition, they have lower turnover rates and wider work experience. (Aiken 1995.)

When the workforce is getting older, organisations need to find the best methods to utilise the older workers’ potential in work. Flexibility in work tasks and times, new or enriched tasks, customised training and education to the needs of the worker and new work roles/tasks, increased autonomy, health promotion and increased decision making possibilities can be all useful tools to utilise older workers’ resources and encourage them to work for more advanced age. Moreover, training managers about older workers might be beneficial for attitude changes and better utilisation of their resources.

References:

Arnold J. and Randall R, et al. (2010): Work Psychology. Understanding human behaviour in the workplace. Fifth edition. Pearson education limited.

Boerlist, J.G., Munnichs, J.M.A., & van der Heijden, B.I.J.M. (1998). The ”Older Worker” in the Organization. In P.J.D. Drenth, H. Thierry, & C.J. de Wolff (eds.). Handbook of Work and Organizational Psychology, Psychology Press, London, Vol. Vol. 2  (pp.183–213) (31 s.)

Doreen T. A.M Kooij & Karina van de Voorde (2014): Strategic HRM for older workers. In Aging workers and the employee-employer relationship. Editors: P. Matthjis Bal, Dorien T.A.M. Kook & Denise M. Rousseau. Springer international publishing Switzerland.

Eurostat 2016: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/population-demography-migration-projections/overview

Lewis R. Aiken (1995): Aging. An introduction to gerontology. Sage publications.

Per Eirik Solem (2012): Ny kunnskap om aldring og arbeid. Rapport NR 6/12. NOVA – Norsk institut for forskning om oppvekst, velferd og aldring.

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