Since the 1960s business thinking has emphasised youth and what youth supposedly carries with it: vitality, energy, creativity. Remember the dot.com bust and you'll question whether youth knows what it's doing.
Older workers are going to matter in the future but they're not as easy to recruit or manage as younger people.
The Age Time Bomb
There will be fewer younger people to employ in the future. More older people will want to work because of the pension gap.
The number of over 55 year olds will grow at three times the rate of any other population until 2025. By 2036, 15-44 year olds will have reduced by 8%; over 75s will have increased by 70%.
As a reaction to this, ageism in employment has been made illegal.
The older worker and the older customer
But you shouldn't react to the situation reluctantly: this is an opportunity. Experience and research are reversing the "young is good, old is not so good" status quo. Companies lost crucial skills and knowledge during the downsizing of the 80s. Former "corporate heroes" are now playing golf, going on holidays, working as consultants or doing part time jobs where in-depth knowledge and patience are required. Who serves you in your old-style corner hardware or DIY shop? Who, increasingly, gives you advice in the supermarket or answers the phone when you ring up an insurance or pension company? We know that customers like to deal with people who are like them. There are more older customers. The solution is obvious: recruit more older people to deal with them.
Recent research into customer service staff discovered that older women perform best. They genuinely see the other person's point of view, won't be put off by the company's systems and excuses and will deliver to a high level.
What happens as we age
Ageing is not a process of decline from youthful perfection! We change. Certainly we become more prone to illness; we react more slowly to problems; some aspects of memory get worse (but less than you'd think). We lose the extremes of our senses; hearing high sounds and discriminating colours.
But many areas improve as we get older. We gain knowledge and experience; we walk around with a library of precedents in our heads which can prevent us making the same mistake for the fifth or fiftieth time.
We also become more ourselves. Despite the cliché of adolescent rebels and outsiders, older people are more different from each other than younger people are. Older people know their priorities. They remember what interests them; they speak their minds. Much absent-mindedness, memory-loss and grouchiness in older people enables them to sidestep what doesn't interest them, or to cope with the expectation that they act in a "suitably old way".
In fact older people have as good memories as younger people when they're interested. They react slower partly because they're considering options. And research shows that older people are happier at work than younger people and more empathetic. They create a better team spirit; are less concerned about status. They set their own high standards and work to achieve them.
Older people excel where knowledge, rather than capacity to learn is the priority; and in those areas where risk must be minimised.
Some tips on testing, recruiting and managing older people
- Recruitment is key. Identify candidates who already share your values, culture and objectives, rather than people you think can grow into the company. Older people have decided what they think and what they're good at; they'll be more difficult to change.
- Don't rush to offer incentives and bonuses. Older people are self-starting, self-monitoring. As with very creative people, external motivational techniques can turn them off.
- Avoid complex systems. For instance, CRM systems often inhibit personal customer service ("I'm afraid the system won't allow me to do that."). Older people add the differentiation: real personal service and the will to go outside systems to get the job done. Set broad parameters and older people will self-regulate.
- Older people work best in teams. But, as with any team, put them together so their roles and personalities fit.
- Manage from alongside especially if you are a young manager. You won't get an easy ride; if an old person thinks you're not answering the question or evading the issue they'll say so. But, when all is said and done, don't we want people devoted to improving our organisations rather than yes-sayers after the next promotion?
A word of caution
All young people aren't the same; older people even less so. While it may be useful to discuss the issue of older people in the way I have, there is no such homogenous group, labelled "old". The golden rule is "You'll never meet an average old person." The psychometric test results of older people also tend to be much more varied.
Training in the administration of psychometric tests
Human Resource professionals need to be specially qualified in order to administer psychometric tests. Both psychologists and non-psychologists can obtain these qualifications. A Level A certificate is required for the administration of ability tests, and a Level B certificate for personality testing. The Psychometrics Centre offers training courses at both Cambridge and London leading to both of these qualifications (issued by the British Psychological Society).
Become a psychometrics consultant
The Psychometrics Centre also offers both full-time and part-time advanced training in psychometrics suitable for numerate and highly motivated human resource professionals, as well as for those (of whatever age) from a good science background who wish to make psychometrics their specialty.
© Ian Florance, May 2004. All rights reserved
Ian Florance is Director of Only Connect Ltd. and an Associate of The Psychometrics Centre.