One of the impacts of the global financial crises has been for many people to defer their plans for retirement. From a physiological perspective this is quite achievable, people currently approaching their 60s were born after World War 2; their parents were children during the great depression of the 1930s and then went through the depravations of the war years. From a physical health perspective today’s 60 year olds are probably similar to their parents in their 50s. If this hypothesis holds true, the end of a baby boomer’s effective working life should be nearer to 75 than 65.
Diversity has long been recognised as contributing value to teams. Including older workers in a team contributes to diversity. Older workers have a lifetime of accumulated experience and provided they remain adaptable and ‘current’ can offer any project team a range of valuable capabilities ranging from wisdom and maturity through to teaching and mentoring.
There are interesting challenges though; the older person has to remain flexible and adaptive. The only best answer was not found 20 years ago and the tendency to become ‘set in ones ways’ is the biggest threat to the effectiveness of the older team member. Experience and lessons learned on past projects are valuable but need to be introduced to the team in subtle and sensitive ways.
Managing older workers also needs to take into account some of the immutable effects of ageing. Stamina and endurance levels reduce as people get older, the skeletal frame becomes more brittle and injuries take longer to heal. The solution is flexible working and if physical work is involved more careful job design. Whilst many older people find a ‘granny nap’ in the early afternoon helpful, after the nap they can keep on working until late at night (another effect of ageing is a reduced need for sleep). Similarly, many older people have learned disciplined work habits and will remain focused on a critical but uninteresting job far longer than youngsters, making fewer mistakes.
The biggest challenge is for young project managers faced with the prospect of managing someone nearly as old their parents. The young leader has to avoid becoming defensive and develop a productive working relationship using techniques similar to those used to ‘advise upwards’; assisted by the structural authority the project manager has over team members. Both sides of the relationship have to adapt but the advantages of applying good stakeholder management skills to make the relationship effective can have major benefits for the project, the project manager and the older worker.
Many skills are going to be in short supply as the recovery cuts in around the world and older workers represent a valuable pool of knowledge and talent. The demographic changes in most western societies are immutable; add in the effect of the GFC and those organisations and managers who learn to make effective use of the resource pool created by older workers wanting to stay in the workforce will have a significant advantage over those organisations that focus exclusively on competing for the diminishing pool of young workers.
What are your experiences in this area?