The Older Worker Opportunity

An elderly man talking to his doctor about some recent test results.

When we think of tech company workers, we tend to imagine a young person – a recent graduate, or a millennial with a young family. What I like about the story of Chip Conley, who was head of hospitality at Airbnb for four years and is still a strategic advisor to the firm, is how the startup took a punt on him precisely because he wasn’t a young, tech-savvy millennial. Writing about his experience, he notes that as a 52-year-old he was “twice the age of the average Airbnb employee”.  Inside the company, he said he bartered his decades of emotional intelligence for younger employees’ digital intelligence, and he has since become an advocate for the “modern elder”.

We know that many societies around the world – notably China, Germany, Italy and Japan – are aging fast. More than a third of the entire world’s population will be above the age of 50 by 2050, according to the UN. This demographic trend means that older workers will make up a growing slice of the potential labor force. And companies will have to get to grips with managing a multigenerational workforce – strategies include making sure they understand Baby Boomers’ different priorities, or using flexible working as an intentional strategy to simultaneously retain older workers’ institutional knowledge and unblock pivotal roles.

The topic of aging and age diversity is such an important one. So I’m delighted that two new Mercer papers get to the heart of businesses’ challenge around experienced workers – and, equally, offer opportunities if companies are brave enough to embrace them.

  • Are You Age-Ready?  Mercer’s new paper is part of the Next Stage platform, which explores future-fit approaches to longevity. Because experienced workers are largely ignored – or misperceived – in organizations’ strategic workforce plans, businesses are failing to capitalize on the value that workers with decades of experience can deliver. The paper shows how smart employers can optimize their workforce performance by capturing the value of age and experience in a changing world of work. And it recommends steps companies can take to make the business more age-ready. 
  • The Twin Trends of Aging and Automation: Leveraging a tech-empowered experienced workforce. Mercer and Oliver Wyman partnered in 2018 to publish The Twin Threats of Aging and Automation, which focused on the risks of rapid societal aging and of older workers’ susceptibility to automation. Yet, as companies realize they are increasingly relying on an aging workforce, the challenge of how to keep older workers productive for longer is one companies (as well as governments) have to engage with. Hence, why we published a new paper that asks: “How can we make tech work with, and for, older workers?” It proposed potential solutions around job redesign, redesigning the talent model, and organizational culture.

How to understand, retain and make best use of the experience and wisdom older workers can bring is an issue that will take us far into 2020 and beyond. As I start to write the 2020 edition of Mercer’s annual Global Talent Trends Study, it’s clear that aging and retirement is one of the areas that requires more focus from companies. The data is still being analyzed, but I can tell you that nearly 80% of employees say they intend to keep working past retirement age; meanwhile, executives say lack of timely retirement at senior level is their #1 workforce planning issue. And with one-third of companies saying they plan to increase boomerang strategies (hiring back ex-employees/retirees), this is a topic that’s just getting started.

Airbnb’s Conley says his favorite saying is: When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down. “In the digital era, libraries –and elders – aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. But wisdom never grows old.” That’s a lesson we can all learn from.

Kate Bravery
by Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer