How can we make tech work with, and for, older workers in an automated age?

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We’re used to hearing horror stories about how automation will put people’s jobs at risk and put many of them on the scrapheap. Our research shows older workers will be disproportionately affected, especially in developed markets such as Japan, Germany, Italy, and Singapore. But what if older workers actually hold the key to helping employers negotiate the brave new robotic age?

It’s a fact that jobs are going to be replaced and redesigned as automation increases – this is happening to workers of all ages. But technology is also an enabler in this scenario. If we take a step back, we can see we’re already using automation to accommodate workers. Robots and machines already take care of the heavy lifting in most factories. Similarly, in the agricultural sector, manpower has long been replaced by tractors and machinery. Plus, let’s not forget that by taking on the 3Ds – deadly, dull, or dangerous work – robots leave the rest of us to do the interesting and human stuff. So automation is already making work easier, better, and safer for people of all ages.

And, simply put, employers need older workers. Shrinking birth rates mean these workers will be the primary source of labor for many developed countries in the near future. Developed nations have no choice but to accommodate older workers if they want to remain economically productive. The value of the longevity economy is estimated to grow to €6.4trn in Europe by 2030 and to $13.5trn in the US by 2032.

Happily, keeping older workers in the workforce just so happens to be in employers’ best interests. Why? Because many older workers have the exact skillsets that will be needed in a robotic age. Mercer’s publication Next Stage: Are You Age-Ready? highlights the value-added contribution of these experienced workers, who exhibit vital and very human attributes that robots will never possess, such as empathy, caring, people skills, and team cohesion. As businesses automate, they will need access to these attributes to differentiate themselves. Indeed, we already see organizations characterized by a high degree of automation seeking skills such as these in their remaining employees – and finding them in experienced workers. And we have found multiple cases in which the productivity of business teams or groups was higher when the work groups were older or mixed-age teams.

There’s another pressing reason for using technology to accommodate older workers. Scientists report that drugs already in production and set to be widely available in the next 10 years may extend life expectancy even further. This is an alarming prospect given that WEF/Mercer research shows people in developed countries such as the US, the UK, and Japan are already running out of money 8-20 years before they die. If we are looking at extending life expectancy further, it follows that these centenarians will need a job to fund that extra lifespan. And if working is going to take up a bigger chunk of our future lives, we need to make it rewarding, interesting, and safe.

So how can we prepare for this future by helping older workers stay productive for longer?

There’s no doubt that employers who automate will be shedding jobs, but millions of jobs will be created as well. Smart employers will retrain and repurpose experienced talent to keep valuable skills in the workplace. This is not as difficult as we might think. There is often a significant overlap in skills for jobs that might at first seem quite distinct, such as those of a personal assistant (now a declining role) and a project manager (now highly sought-after). Our estimates show that going the new hire route and not retraining could more than double business costs.

And experienced workers often have a hunger to learn. Our research with focus groups and employees shows that about two-thirds of older workers want to work differently. Half of these workers want more flexibility and fewer hours. And the other half are looking for a new challenge: they are ready to ramp up, not down, retraining and studying to set the stage for an exciting new career. What employer wouldn’t want to hire and engage people like these?

But employers need to take care when redesigning work models to attract experienced workers. New-style platform employment such as the gig economy doesn’t offer the type of quality work experienced workers seek: it provides neither promotional opportunities nor employee benefits; individuals have little control over their development; and training is minimal or non-existent. Research has shown that happy workplaces and good-quality work can increase productivity, and the opposite is also true: poor-quality work reduces motivation, engagement, and productivity. The latter is not the type of environment that will attract and retain any type of worker, regardless of age, and is not great for the economy either.

In our new point of view, The Twin Trends of Aging and Automation: Leveraging a Tech-Empowered Experienced Workforce, we propose a strategy to help employers retain valued experienced workers and cultivate a workforce that uses advanced technology to be more productive and manpower-lean. This strategy involves the three principal steps of 1) redesigning jobs, 2) redesigning talent models, and 3) ensuring employees’ health, well-being, and productivity – all based on an inclusive organizational culture that celebrates an age-diverse workforce and empowers experienced workers.

Let’s forget the doom and gloom scenario of job-stealing robots. We believe that creating a tech-empowered experienced workforce is the true future of work.

Yvonne Sonsino
Yvonne Sonsino

Partner, Innovation Leader, Mercer International

Partner, Innovation Leader of Mercer’s Digital Innovation Hub, International Region, Mercer