Drawing upon new research, this article from Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor at Acas, asks how well organisations are managing older workers and gives some clues as to what the workplace issues of the future might be. 

We all know the statistics. There are currently 20 million people aged 50 and over in the UK. By 2030 this figure is expected to reach 27 million – an increase of 37 per cent. So, older workers are likely to have a significant say in the workplace of the future. 

A new piece of research by Leicester University, commissioned by Acas, looks at how well many organisations are managing older workers. The picture it paints of now, gives us some useful clues as to what the workplace issues of the future might be. 

Here are five things the research tells us: 

1. Do away with stereotypes

They are mostly untrue and help create generational divides. To quote from my recent policy paper, it is too easy to accept the so-called truisms: “older workers are more loyal but more resistant to change; younger workers are more interested in training and personal development while older workers are preoccupied with winding down.” 

Let’s just take the last one head-on: ‘winding down’. Although recent research shows that younger employees are more likely to stay late and pretend to work in order to impress the boss, older workers often have equally pressing caring and financial reasons for staying in active employment.  

2. The one-to-one ‘conversation’ will never be more important

The really big management dilemma is that although there is a really great need to talk to older workers, it just isn’t happening enough. Most people accept that having a health MOT with their GP makes sense, so why not take the same approach at work: sit down with your manager and take stock of where you are and your plans you might have?  

Let’s hope that in the future the ‘mid-life career reviews’, piloted by BIS and the TUC’s UnionLearn, are commonplace in most organisations. 

3. Soft and hard skills both have their place

The office of the future will rely more on emotional intelligence. Talking to someone about performance or conduct issues can be very tough and emotive but with older works you are likely to want to talk about broader life issues around health and, at some point, when and how to end the employment relationship. 

Some form of flexible working, such as part-time, often provides a good transition from work to retirement and new technology can help facilitate this change. But let’s not assume that new technology is exclusive to one age group – even if recent research from IPSOS MORI does find that Twitter is largely the domain of the “young and posh”!   

4. Don’t take age diversity for granted

It may feel safe to assume that with more older workers to choose from when recruiting, you’ll get your fair share. But heeding the Department of Work and Pensions’ advice to ‘Retain, Retrain and Recruit’ depends largely on effective management of the older workers you have.  

Research shows that many managers mentally filter older workers into those who are worth developing and those who should be shepherded towards the exit. Bearing in mind the assumptions we make about people based upon their age, it is hardly surprising that many find themselves in the latter category. Age audits may prove even more essential in the future, and Acas’ tool is a good starting point.       

5. Think work-life integration not work-life balance

Along with many people, I read with interest the thoughts of Professor Cary Cooper about ‘work-life integration’ having superseded ‘work-life balance’.  

I think the idea is partly in response to the constant balancing act between work and home. The picture has become ever more complex – where there once might have been one big scales (work on one side and home on the other) we all now seem to need a set of portable scales to make constant adjustments to our work/leisure activities: how many work emails are we reading while watching our favourite TV programme? There is certainly no reason to assume this integration will be any less necessary for older workers. 

One final thought. It is too often assumed that the future will be about either/or: either robots or humans, either constant performance feedback or more measured reviews, either generational harmony or discord. In fact, it will probably be somewhere in between. One particular skill older workers have is in mentoring and coaching younger workers. And if they are the ones passing on the wisdom, they are unlikely to throw the baby out with the bath water. 


By Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor, Acas



What do you think older workers tell us about the future of work? Do you have any experiences to share? Leave your comments in the box below.

For more original opinion pieces like this, subscribe to our monthly spam-free future of work newsletter.