Pop Quiz: Which is the fastest growing segment of the working population in the USA (and probably Canada as well)? If you’re about to answer: Millennials, you would be…. wrong! Despite the fact that the millennial generation is getting the most press, publicity, and attention these days (including from yours truly – mea culpa), the fastest growing segment of the North American workforce is older workers . While the millennials are garnering all the attention, older workers are toiling in relative obscurity; and a major opportunity to engage them is being lost.
I would like to change that. Full disclosure: I’m rapidly approaching that age group myself – so, of course, some of this is self-interest. Actually, my real motivation are my many clients who are riveted in the boardroom when I discuss the (in)famous Millennial generation, whereas the majority of their workforce is actually older than that. Also, I see many opportunities to engage both generations simultaneously.
But first, we need to revisit some of the motivations and dispel some of the myths, of the older generation at work.
Dispelling the Myth
Myth: Older workers will be retiring soon, so we are better investing in our younger workers.
This is partially true; you should be investing in your younger workers. However, many older workers aren’t going anywhere. First, the good news: we’re living longer (which we all know); and, our health and quality of life is allowing us to work longer should we choose to. For that reason, if older workers are engaged, they aren’t retiring (unless forced). Most older workers continue to work because they choose to, not necessarily to pay bills. This means the pressures are much different and much less. It also means that what motivates a worker who doesn’t have to be there will be quite different. For that reason, older workers resemble their younger (Millennials) counterparts in one very important respect: if they are not engaged, they can leave.
That being said, debt levels and bankruptcies are both increasing among many older workers, so there is a minority that working because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. 
In any event, the fact remains that many older workers aren’t retiring; we need to engage them, we need to retain the experience and corporate memory that they possess; and we need to engage them differently than our other employees.
What motivates and/or engages older workers?
Simple: acknowledge and leverage their experience. Of course! That’s so easy. Why didn’t I think of that? However, in many organizations that I deal with on a day-to-day basis in helping to improve their engagement, the number one reason why older workers are a) disengaged, and b) choosing to retire, is that they don’t feel their experience is valued. The simple fact is that senior leaders (often younger than they are) are making decisions without necessarily tapping into older workers’ extensive and practical experience.
The intrinsic value of the job – challenge and sense of purpose. All employees are engaged (or not) by the nature of their work. Most older workers are no longer financially dependent on their work and continue to work to continue a sense of purpose and for the intrinsic value of the work itself.
Social interaction. Many older workers continue to work for the social interaction. Also, most older workers enjoy continuous learning and intellectual stimulation, as do we all.
The Key to Engaging Older Workers is Recognizing and Acting on these Needs.
First and foremost: give older workers opportunities to demonstrate their experience. In a previous blog post, I talked about reverse mentoring – from the Millennials’ point of view. However, pairing older workers with younger ones allows the older worker to mentor and provide their experience to younger, eager workers looking for the keys to career success. In return, older workers learn new technology and other skills.
Research also suggests that putting older and young workers together helps both groups perform better. They make good allies in part because of their similar interests; but because of their different stages of life, they are less competitive with each other than workers in the same age cohort might be. That means that they are more likely to help each other and to form good teams. 
Second: Create advisory boards and other vehicles where older workers can lend their experience and insight on special projects and other initiatives.First and foremost: give older workers opportunities to demonstrate their experience. In a previous blogpost, I talked about reverse mentoring – from the Millennials’ point of view. However, pairing older workers with younger ones allows the older worker to mentor and provide their experience to younger, eager workers looking for the keys to career success. In return, older workers learn new technology and other skills.
Third: Use older workers as teachers. One organization in particular with which I have worked with for many years, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, regularly re-hires retired senior managers and diplomats to work with expert trainers because no outside third party has the practical experience and knowledge of their unique culture.
Last but not least: Consult them on matters where their experience matters. And, certainly, ask them as individuals how they feel they could best contribute to the organization.
By engaging your older worker cohort, you’ll not only improve retention, you’ll retain vital corporate memory and have individuals which will serve as key resources to train and develop the other important age cohort.
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/01/art3full.pdf.
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