• Managing people

Upside to an Ageing Workforce

London Business School’s Professor Andrew Scott reveals a ‘longevity dividend’ that companies can unlock to boost productivity


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Much has been written about leading Millennials at work. But another HR issue, around leading the post-65 generation that is increasingly staying on in the workforce, remains largely ignored by most commentators.

The exception being by London Business School’s Professor Andrew Scott, who writing recently in City AM pointed out that “Unlocking the productivity of [these] healthier older people would have a substantial impact on paying for an ageing society.” He contends as he did in the 2016 book he wrote with Professor Lynda Gratton, The 100 Year Life, that while the UK and other advanced countries fear that an ageing population will severely undermine their future economic prospects, they may have failed to take account of the potential economic benefits brought by older workers.

Life expectancy beyond the Bible’s “three score years and ten” has to be a great thing, but the demographic forces it brings, allied to a declining population growth are profound – in 1976 14% of the UK’s population was over 65, today it is 18% and it is predicted to be 25% by 2036. Conventional wisdom has it that fewer workers and more dependants will lead to falling GDP growth, rising pensions and healthcare costs, less tax revenues and higher government debt – a dismal outlook for all.

The point that may have been missed is that, as Scott highlights, “A 78-year-old man today in England and Wales has the mortality rate of a 65-year-old in 1922. That seems better described as ‘younger for longer’ or ‘healthy ageing’ than as an ‘ageing society’.” While society is getting older, and not ignoring the misery of Alzheimer’s and other conditions of old age, people are generally leading healthier lives, mortality rates are lowering, and chronic disease and illness are being better managed by improving healthcare and radical advances in medical treatment.

Although businesses may be excited about tapping the spending power of the post-65 generation, few have fully focused on the opportunities and challenges longevity brings to their own workforces. Few have really considered how their structures and practices may need to change to benefit from the potential productivity gains older workers can bring. While people are becoming increasingly aware that working into their 70s may be inevitable and for some desirable, they do not find any support or direction in their current working context. Professor Scott’s research suggests that while people know they will have to restructure their lives and careers, corporations are unprepared.

There is a leadership imperative now to create organizations that can adapt to older workers’ specific career and life aspirations. For many people the thought of continuing to work into their 70s, if all that’s on offer is a later retirement age and continuing to work on as before, will be deeply depressing – and in any case, this is unlikely to lead to greater corporate productivity.

There needs to be a rethink in the way both individuals and corporations structure the way they live and work. People need to shift towards multi-stage careers that accommodate their changing priorities as they get older – around work, finances, education, health and leisure, and organizations need to support this restructuring of careers and lifelong learning.

Work itself is also changing. In a digitally enhanced knowledge economy there is of course less manual work. There is also a greater need for organizations to treasure the knowledge retained by older workers and to leverage their experience in mentoring and training new generations. Less hierarchical organizational structures flexible working practices and digital connectivity open the door to allowing new options for job definition and late-stage careers.

In The 100 Year Life the authors offer this advice to individuals "Reflect. Think. Don't let your life just happen to you." The same advice should also apply to organizations and their leaders, getting it right could reap significant productivity gains and better prospects for us all.

Many people now in their mid-40s are likely to need to work into their early to mid-70s, and 20 year-olds, now predicted to have a life expectancies to over 100, will be working into their late 70s and even their 80s. There is a positive side to this so long as older people's work can be made an attractive engaging proposition; and if it can there is a ‘longevity dividend’ that companies will be able to unlock to boost their productivity and the county's economic prospects.

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