The recent Hollywood movie The Intern, about a 72-year-old retiree who becomes the latest intern in an internet start-up company, is more than just an amusing idea. It is becoming more of a reality. Alan Field looks at the advantages of employing older workers.

According to a recent Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) Golden Age Index report , the UK could be taking more competitive advantage of an older workforce.

PwC claims that if the UK employment rate for people aged 55 to 69 equalled that of Sweden, the GDP of the UK would increase by some £100 billion (about 5% of the UK total). In other words, UK plc is missing a trick. Older workers are a valuable resource and should not be there merely to support legal or corporate social responsibility goals.

What is an older worker?

The notion of retirement ages and what is meant by career progression have been evolving in recent years.

The PwC Golden Age Survey (which is referred to within the report) talks about older workers as those who are 55–69 years of age but, of course, "older" workers might be defined outside those ranges by some organisations or sectors. In terms of the Golden Age Survey, the UK only sits about midway in the international league table in terms of take-up of older workers.

Jon Andrews, Head of PwC’s global people and organisation practice, said: “This group of workers is too often overlooked by businesses and government, but our research shows there could be big economic gains from policies directed at keeping people skilled and motivated to stay in the workforce for longer."

In some sectors, experience and seniority — traditionally the mainstay of corporate organisations — have been replaced, in recent years, by fast moving technological and market changes that can seem, to some employers, the domain of the younger, more agile workers, whether this is a valid conclusion or not.

The other change is more fundamental. Traditionally, people had a “job for life”, sometimes with a final salary pension, frequently index linked. Any adult children they had would often be in permanent employment with similar benefits. Housing was, for at least some, both suitable and affordable.

This has now changed for many people. Some workers may feel the need to continue working beyond normal retirement age or they may wish to work longer to offer financial support to their children or grandchildren. Also, recessions have led to layoffs and older workers will sometimes find it difficult to find other permanent work.

The changing nature of the workplace also means that some older workers will simply want to do new things, learn new skills and have new challenges. This can be turned into a competitive advantage by any employer, including those in the FM sector.

However, the other driver is simply this. There is an ageing workforce as a result of demographic changes. For example, in the world's biggest economy — the US — the AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) in its April 2015 report A Business Case for Workers 50+ — A Look at the Value of Experience calculated that, by 2022, over 35% of the American workforce will be made up by those who are 50 years of age or older. Back in 2002, the same percentage was 25% — the curve is upwards. This is typical in Western economies and all employers will need to become smarter in the way that older workers are employed and developed to mutual advantage.

Some employers, and arguably this could include those providing certain FM functions, might offer cleaning or landscape maintenance roles to older workers because they see them as less ambitious than younger workers and, especially those receiving pensions, more flexible about part-time or zero-hours working.

These are negative assumptions and do not necessarily reflect how an older workforce could be developed to the employer’s advantage and, indeed, to support the type of national infrastructure that the FM sector can benefit from in terms of new business.

As John Hawksworth, PwC Chief Economist and co-author of the PwC report, commented: “Given ageing populations across the developed world, it is critical that countries make better use of their older workers to boost economic output and help fund rising state pension and healthcare bills."

In other words, there are wider business considerations beyond individual workers’ expectations.

What does this mean in practice?

There are two separate but closely connected issues.

  1. Ensuring that older workers are retained, which includes making sure there are career paths for the over 50s.

  2. Defining the advantages of employing older workers, some of whom may be past normal retirement age (although, as we know, even this concept of a definite date to retire is looser with the abolition of the default retirement age).

Taking the latter example first, Barclays and National Express have apprenticeship schemes for older workers (reported by the Financial Times on 2 June 2015) and, in the retail sector employers — such as B&Q — actively recruit older workers. Experience, flexibility in working hours and customer care skills may all be areas where older workers have an advantage, depending on the individual and the role. In one sense, all employees should be seen as "ageless", ie an individual should be assessed by his or her potential (or current) employer for his or her suitability for a particular role; for some roles, maturity may bring advantages, whereas with others it may be a different balance of criteria. Non-discrimination is, in one sense, being aware of an individual's skills and potential, irrespective of age or other factors.

This brings us back to the first point about retaining older workers. A number of strategies can be used, eg providing wider staff consultation and promoting an understanding of why different generational groups interact in the way they do within a workplace; in turn, this can be developed to mutual and competitive advantage. For example, a recent press release from Sodexo explained how its award winning "GenMatch" approach worked. To gain employees’ involvement, Sodexo presented them with a specially designed board game. The aim was to help challenge generational stereotypes by getting teams to talk about differences in an informal way. More than 1600 sets of the game were distributed to around 200 sites, encouraging employees to appreciate Sodexo’s diverse workforce and the opportunities and challenges this presents.

The network, which attracted more than 300 members in its first four months, also organised a series of workshops and webinars covering “life stage” matters such as managing childcare and being a carer.

Sean Haley, Managing Director of Service Operations for Sodexo UK and Ireland and Executive Sponsor of the generations workstream, said: “The differences between generations can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication but, in a workplace situation, if we raise awareness of those differences and harness people’s individuality, it can have a huge impact on the way we work together and help us perform better as a business ."

In other words — and in all organisations — the question of accepting an older workforce is not just something for the board to consider. It is a process of acceptance across all levels of staff.

Conclusion

Facilities management, dynamic as it is, still has a number of roles where stability and maturity are key elements over and above any desire for career progression. Also, rather like the storyline in The Intern, older workers can bring a surprising range of skills from their earlier employment or other life experiences.

In other words, while areas such as legal compliance and corporate social responsibility are important considerations, as the PwC Golden Age Survey shows, there is competitive advantage to be had from taking advantage of an ageing workforce.

Last reviewed 20 November 2015