New tricks—Not if but how

While numerous reports have considered how technology will affect the labour market, the specific impacts on older workers have not been discussed. Geoff Pearman* takes a look at what mature aged workers are looking for from the workplace.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was Mary’s opening line as she talked with her manager Jill about her decision to retire. The introduction of the new computer system was, for Mary, the last straw—it was time to retire. Jill had been aware that her team member was struggling with learning the new system, but hadn’t realised it had reached the point where she was going to give it all away. She seemed to enjoy her work, she was well liked by her colleagues and she still had a lot to contribute.

Early in my training career, a mentor said to me “Remember if the learner hasn’t learned then the teacher hasn’t taught.” While I don’t agree with the implication that the responsibility for learning rests with the “teacher”, it does raise the question: “Have we as learning and development practitioners the skills and knowledge required to engage with an ageing workforce?” This is especially so for those who, for various reasons, have not had to engage to any extent in ongoing learning and development to carry out their job.

It is only over the past five years that a very limited literature has started to emerge discussing the impact of the cognitive, emotional and physical changes taking place as we age on how we learn as mature aged workers. This has largely been led by thought leaders who understand the major demographic shifts taking place and the impacts of increased longevity for individuals, employers and society at large.

Currently in New Zealand there are over 176,000 people aged 65 plus in the workforce, with this set to exceed 350,000 by 2031 and 410,000 by 2050.

Currently in New Zealand there are over 176,000 people aged 65 plus in the workforce, with this set to exceed 350,000 by 2031 and 410,000 by 2050. Go back to 1996 and there were only 25,000 people 65 and over still working. Not only are older workers staying on in greater numbers, but from a labour market and economic standpoint it makes sense.

A recent UK study by PwC, Why we should be training our mature-age learners, found that investing in the training of older workers for employment can deliver a significant boost not only to organisations, but to the national GDP. This research sits alongside global research from Grant Thornton that suggests we are going to experience significant skills shortages (Global survey warns of workplace skills shortage). So not only are people staying on at work longer, but employers are going to need them and it makes economic sense.

The recent What’s Next television series fronted by Nigel Latta and John Campbell engaged the nation in a conversation on New Zealand 2037. They highlighted in the first episode the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics on our lives and how some jobs are already undergoing significant change. In a recently released report, What’s Age Got To Do With It? Towards a new advocacy on age and work, Australian researchers Philip Taylor and Warwick Smith suggest we are now being confronted by a fourth industrial revolution. They rightly note that while numerous reports have considered what this technological revolution will mean for the labour market, the specific impacts on older workers have not been discussed.

They conclude that older workers will be particularly vulnerable as they are less likely to be offered training by their employer to keep their skills up to date, due in part to a perception that it is a less worthwhile investment when compared to training a younger worker. Much of the discussion in training and education is currently dominated by calls for faster and more direct forms of training and a sufficient supply of younger people possessing qualifications that are in demand. This trend has been evident in our tertiary education system over the past decade, with a shift away from a focus on lifelong learning to early career preparation.

As the age of the workforce rises and the nature of jobs changes radically, employers will be forced to concentrate much more than they have in the past on understanding what mature aged employees are looking for from the workplace, and the skill potential of middle-aged and older employees.

So what are older workers looking for in the workplace? Over the past five years we have asked people participating in workshops and focus groups to complete a Work Preferences questionnaire. Respondents were all aged 50 and over. They were asked to rate 15 items in terms of their importance to them as they age at work and then to select the top three. The items covered topics such as flexible work arrangements, access to advice, health and wellbeing programmes, ongoing training etc.

We now have over 650 responses drawn from Australian and New Zealand workplaces and covering a range of organisational sizes and sectors. While there are some differences between the two countries, primarily due to the complexity of the aged pension and superannuation systems in Australia, three clear themes emerged.

Don’t sideline me

What mature aged employees are looking for is:

  1. Flexibility. Time-based options such as being able to reduce their hours as they transition, compressed working weeks, additional leave and working from home from time to time. Other research suggests that what sits behind this is the desire to have choice and to be able to balance out competing demands in their lives.
  2. Access to good advice. While Australian employees rated access to advice to prepare for retirement as number one and New Zealanders as sixth, both rated access to health and well-being advice and programmes as second. Other research has shown that while mature aged people in the USA worry about being able to afford health care, New Zealanders worry about being healthy enough to do the things they want to.
  3. Meaningful work. They wanted to be doing challenging work  (“don’t sideline me”) with access to ongoing training and development and the opportunity to mentor.

The Institute for Employment Studies in the UK reviewed 41 studies and found three common things that mattered: work content, work culture and work adjustments. In respect of work content, older workers were seeking meaningful work that was interesting, stretched them and made full use of their skills and experience. They wanted work that was varied and worthwhile. And they were looking for autonomy over how, when and what kind of tasks they did.

In terms of work culture, they wanted to work in organisational cultures that were open and inclusive, where their voices were heard and they had open and fair access to training and career development. They wanted to be managed well as individuals, as well as working in effective mixed-age teams.

The work adjustments they were looking for included full and equal access to occupational health and wellbeing support, appropriate physical adjustments to equipment and workplaces, and flexible working arrangements.

As Jill explored with Mary her decision to “throw it all in”, what emerged was not a lack of desire to keep working or that she loved her job any less, but rather an employee who had found the training on the new system confusing, disempowering and stressful. She described how it was affecting her self-confidence, her relationships with other team members and her health.

One of the biggest drawbacks to training for aging workers is that it typically is not grounded in the fundamental physical, cognitive and psychosocial issues they face.

In an insightful article published in EHS Today, Scott Lassila suggests that some of the methods we use in training may, in fact, disengage the engaged. “Effective training is a critical part of enhancing safety and improving job related injuries. Aging workers have been through so many training regimens over the course of their careers that they may not respond as effectively to certain formats that might have worked when they were new to their roles … One of the biggest drawbacks to training for aging workers is that it typically is not grounded in the fundamental physical, cognitive and psychosocial issues they face.”

Ordering a second coffee, Jill started to explore with Mary what it was about the training that she found anxiety provoking. Mary acknowledged that while she had been critical of the old system and all the work-arounds, she just couldn’t make sense of the new one, she didn’t understand the rationale behind the new processes.

Further, being in a training room with younger co-workers who just seemed to pick it up was embarrassing given she was a long-serving staff member. The trainer seemed to go at a pace that suited the younger ones and she got left behind. She didn’t want to bother the trainer so she just kept her head down.

Jill listened carefully as Mary continued to talk about how she really wanted to stay on at work. In a timely conclusion, Jill suggested to Mary that maybe she wasn’t ready to retire and that old dogs could learn new tricks. The issue was not if she wanted to learn, but rather how she preferred to learn.

A smile came across Mary’s face as she asked Jill what she had in mind. Jill suggested they find a computer in a quiet room and that they take their time and do some one-on-one training where Jill could support Mary and focus on the particular things she didn’t understand and the tasks she was having trouble with.

Mary is now the expert user in her workplace.

Five ways to re-activate and nurture people’s learning ability

In a European report, Building Workplaces in Line with the Ageing Process, the authors not only discuss the need to re-design jobs and workplaces in line with peoples changing abilities, but to also recognise that many older workers have progressed through their careers without too much demand to engage in the level of training now required to maintain currency in a fast-changing world. They give us five timely reminders about how to reactivate and nurture people’s learning abilities.

  1. Regardless of age, people who are no longer used to learning need to be given sufficient time to learn to learn. There is a great variety of ways in which individuals learn and how fast they learn. On the whole, people learn more slowly as they age and need more time to process information.
  2. People who are not used to learning will often be afraid of learning new things. Competitive situations which expose people and provoke anxieties should be avoided. It is important to find out to what extent the lack of motivation to learn, which is often ascribed to older people, might be an expression of a fear of failure.
  3. The learning situation should permit the learner to make links with previous experience. Learning materials should value and build on existing experience. Activities must take account of employees’ practical interests and abilities. It is preferable to offer task-centred, work-related learning and the time for people to make sense of the new knowledge or skills through discussion.
  4. Cognitive performance does not necessarily decline with age. Even when older people have been found to be slower with problem-solving activities, brief training can improve their cognitive abilities.
  5. A stubborn refusal to budge from old experiences can block learning processes. It is important to focus explicitly on the inadequacies and potential errors which long-established working methods may represent. People will only be motivated to engage in active learning if they realise that there is no alternative to acquiring new skills and that the new learning will advantage them.

  • GEOFF PEARMAN is the managing director of Partners in Change, a trans-Tasman consultancy specialising in age and work. Based in Dunedin Geoff works with organisations throughout New Zealand and Australia. He recently published his first book, Doing It Differently – Life and Work After 50.

This article was first published in Employment Today magazine New Zealand’s leading publication on HR management and employment law.

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