I've been doing a piece of work where the question of generational differences has come up a few times. There's a feeling that each generation is very different and there are stereotypes being generated of Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and Baby Boomers and time periods which mark the start of that generation.
This isn't the right moment for me to talk about why I think the whole generational thing that stereotypes like this tend to solidify in people's minds is overblown, and makes a lot of money for consultants. I've met many older people who are totally computer and social media literate, entrepreneurial, and happy mobile workers, and many younger ones who've got very limited computer skills, no spirit of get up and go, and want a manager who will tell them what to do. But I am happy to say that I think different people whatever their age have different responses to work, the workplace, management style, career progression and so on.
So I was amused this week when I got several articles about aging into my email box. I can't remember now (is it because I am one of those referred to as 'senior') whether someone sent me an article which I forwarded to someone and he/she sent me one in return, or whether getting several is happenstance, or whether a report on aging has triggered journalists to all weigh in on the topic. Of course, it could be any combination of these plus other things. Van Morrison's phrase springs to mind 'There ain't know why there just is.' And now I'm wondering how old Van Morrison is.
First comes a bulletin on America's Aging Population. I found this pretty interesting as the government agency I was working with last year had 45% of its workforce retirement eligible. This meant really thinking about how to design for knowledge sharing, workforce reduction, job re-design and contingency planning in case some critical jobs were left exposed. Organizations with a similar demographic profile might want to take notice of the figures quoted in the bulletin that: "In 1999, Americans ages 55 and older made up 12 percent of the labor force. Their share had grown to 19 percent by 2009, and is projected to reach 25 percent by 2019."
Various reasons are given for older workers putting off their retirement, but regardless of the reasons it seems that taking points from the other articles on aging I read this week employers should be delighted that older workers are staying on. (Forget the older change resistant, poor performing, curmudgeons who should be managed out – or managed into better performance - as any other poor performer whatever age should be).
Science and Nature magazine reported that "researchers are discovering some surprising advantages of aging".
- First, older people are expert at multitasking. In an experiment with air traffic controllers researcher found older ones "were expert at navigating, juggling multiple aircraft simultaneously and avoiding collisions."
- Second, older people can handle social conflicts more effectively than younger ones.
- Third, older people have a greater facility to manage their emotions. The researchers say that "It turns out that managing emotions is a skill in itself, one that takes many of us decades to master"
Having sat (twice) last week in Doha airport for eight hours having missed the connection on both the incoming and outgoing flight to Khartoum my skills in the above aspects were thoroughly tested, as I argued for access to the lounge, an explanation for why they ticket people with too short a gap between flights, a suggestion that the crowd of other passengers who'd missed connections be organized in a more equitable fashion, etc.
Then there's the CNN piece, The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome. This one poses the question "But what if, in fact, the aging brain is more capable than its younger counterpart at creativity and innovation?" This piece then goes on to suggest that, contrary to a prevailing view, capability in many areas continues to develop as people age.
" And what's even more interesting is that many of these advanced abilities correlate with key conceptual elements of innovation and creativity. This is particularly true for the human-centered design process - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test - as outlined by the Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as "the d.school". The article author then explains, for each of the for stages of the human centered design process exactly how older people are good hiring bets in this arena.
This article is useful because it offers three further thoughts on why it is important to design an organization in ways that will continue to develop the older workforce members.
- First, creativity needs to be incentivized "The older brain is quite resilient and can be stimulated to innovate, create and contribute in extraordinary ways. We need incentives to encourage older people to continue to be creative". The speaker here notes that the experience older people have can act as a blinker to alternative ways of thinking – I remembered the Zen aphorism 'in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.'
- Second, encourage seniors to seek out new environments – travel is one example, learning a language another – that will act to challenge assumptions, take people out of their normal groove, and support insight and creativity
- Third, balance the fearlessness of youth with the wisdom of age. This where I remembered a bumper sticker I once came across which read 'Hire a teenager while they still know everything.' Open-minded older wisdom combined with fearless youth could lead to a good path to innovation.
Then there was the piece that came my way was from the Plexus Institute that describes the factors that lead to frailty in older people "In a sort of negative synergism, poor nutrition leads to lost muscle mass, which reduces strength and walking speed, which reduces overall activity and energy. These factors interact to dysregulate the immune, endocrine and other systems of the body."
In this piece there is a pointer to the factors that develop over a lifetime that ultimately lead to frailty. This suggests that those employers interested in the physical well-being of their workforce should design in activities that prevent or minimize the accumulation of these factors
Finally, this week, someone sent me a quote "Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions". Earl Gray Stevens which seemed to me to represent the view someone expressed: 'The older I get the less I know."
All this information acted together to suggest that an aging workforce is an inevitable part of the landscape of organizations in several parts of the world – the US, Japan, UK, and some other European countries are some of these – but not Sudan where I was last week where the average age of the workforce I was with was 34. The opportunity is there for organization designers to plan to design organizations that recognize the potential of older members of the workforce as much as younger members of the workforce.
What are your thoughts on designing with the aging workforce in mind?
Note: See also my blog on Servant Leadership and Aging, October 2010.