According to Statistics Canada, for the first time in our history, there are now more seniors over the age of 65 than there are children under 15. With fewer young people entering the workforce to replace the increasing number of retirees, this shift is having direct implications on Canadaʼs economy and labour market.
Statistics Canada reports that 300,000 Canadians retired in the last few years (a 30 per cent increase over the past). This has, in part, contributed to the labour shortage Canadian businesses are facing. In many cases, retirement-aged employees were the first to go when COVID began as employers sought to cut costs to cope with the pandemic’s economic fallout. Others left the workforce feeling burned out and disillusioned by expectations of long hours and stressful work. However, the labour market has struggled to recover and employers are scrambling to fill the staffing holes opened up by departing seniors.
In spite of the need for workers, older adults face barriers when trying to remain in the labour market or re-enter the workforce, including:
Ageism: Discrimination based on age stereotypes that don’t reflect the reality of aging individuals, such as beliefs that older workers are less productive, more prone to sickness and resistant to change.
Preferential treatment of younger workers who are given more opportunities based on the assumption that older workers don’t learn as quickly or will struggle with technology.
Difficulty in finding and applying for jobs due to a lack of access to information about employment opportunities that match older people’s skills or that offer appropriate workplace accommodations like accessibility.
Unfair compensation practices: Unemployed older Canadians are more likely to suffer significant wage decreases, earning up to 25 per cent less than in their previous jobs.
In spite of these barriers, retirees are returning to the workforce. Some go back to work because they need the money to pay for living expenses or leisure activities. Many just want to work because they find it more meaningful than staying at home.
The Benefits of Hiring Older Workers
Although it’s unfair to stereotype any particular generation of workers, evidence and experience show that the following are more often true than not of retirees and senior workers.
They’re reliable and productive. There’s a misconception that older workers are less productive, but research shows there is no difference in productivity between older and younger workers. In fact, some studies show that age diversity can actually improve the performance and productivity of a team. When older, experienced workers and younger employees with strong skills and talent work together, it fosters collaboration, reciprocal learning and cultural diversity.
They’re loyal. Many companies are facing the reality that younger workers are eager to gain different types of experience and therefore stay in jobs for shorter periods of time and move on. Conversely, many retirees have stories to share about a lifetime working for one company. They may be more likely to stay in a job for the long term instead of looking for a new role.
They’re looking for flexibility. Because many mature workers can work flexible schedules, they can fit into non-traditional time slots that don’t require full-time employees. This could include part-time, on-call or seasonal work, or job sharing.
They come with a built-in set of skills and abilities. In relation to senior workers, Kerry Hannon (at Forbes.com), says, “The whole set of mental abilities that you look for in a great employee are baked in. Management skills, leadership skills, communication skills, empathy — those qualities keep developing as we age. And when a great idea percolates up, older workers are adept at sussing out what to make of it because they can weigh it against whatʼs succeeded and failed and how high the bar truly is to hitting one out of the park.”
They contribute to a healthy culture. Seniors have conformed to many values and norms over their careers and are adaptable and eager to contribute. Generally, they bring a maturity and a can-do attitude to the workplace that aligns with a positive culture. Older workers tend to be proactive, positive and practical. Hannon offers that while this is a generalization, experience shows that the big life challenges are behind older workers (the kids are launched, big-ticket money drains are easing, the mortgage is paid off and so forth). This is the time in life when they can focus their energy on their jobs and love their work with a zeal that wasn’t possible at a younger age.
They are confident. Confidence is a key trait of high-performing employees, and older workers tend to be poised and self-assured, confident in their knowledge, skills and abilities. This quality can rub off on younger employees and inspire them to accomplish their goals. The best employees are those who bring a mix of confidence and expertise, a combination that shines with age.
They contribute leadership skills. Whether or not they have been in formal leadership roles, workers who have been on the job for a few decades are often good natural leaders, in large part due to their communication skills. In their formative work years, communication wasn’t ruled by email, texting or social media. As a result, they tend to have honed sharp communication and people skills. They have led in many different ways throughout their careers and bring both formal and informal leadership skills to the team.
How Employers Can Attract and Engage Mature Workers
Create a Culture That Honours Experience
Mature workers will be attracted to a culture that values their experience and capabilities — an environment that can take some time and effort to build.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” Ken Dychtwald, Tamara J. Erickson and Bob Morison suggest, “If companies are to win back the hearts and minds of baby boomers and other mature workers, they need to start with the work environment itself, which has become increasingly alienating to anyone over the age of 50. Human resource practices are often explicitly or implicitly biased against older workers, and these biases can seep into the culture in a manner that makes them feel unwelcome.”
This can begin with recruiting and the subtle ways words in a job advertisement are chosen. “Even high-energy, young-in-spirit older workers, for example, may interpret an ad stressing ‘energy,’ ‘fast paced’ and ‘fresh thinking’ as implicitly targeting younger workers and dismiss the opportunity out of hand,” suggest the authors. “Mature workers are more likely to be attracted to ads emphasizing ʻexperience,ʼ ʻknowledgeʼ and ʻexpertise.ʼ ”
Offer Flexible Work
Older employees are looking for companies whose HR processes and culture are welcoming. While mature workers want to keep working, they may want to do so in fewer hours per week so they can pursue other interests. Many returning retirees have a direct and compelling need for flexibility to accommodate multiple commitments, such as caring for grandchildren and elderly parents. Work that’s flexible in both where and when it’s performed can appeal to employees’ changing needs, while also meeting changing employer needs for workers.
Support the Concept of Flexible Retirement
Post COVID, employers are recognizing that flexibility is becoming a consideration across all generations of workers. Flexible retirement is a logical extension of these malleable models where the work may continue after the official retirement age. Many people don’t want a life of pure leisure. A recent AARP/Roper Center of Public Opinion Research survey found that 80 per cent of baby boomers plan to work at least part-time during their retirement, and only 16 per cent say that they won’t work at all.
These workers are looking for options — three days a week, for example, or maybe six months a year. Many want or need the income, but that’s not the sole motivator. Mature workers are interested in continuing to learn, grow, try new things and be productive. They enjoy the sense of self-worth that comes with contributing to an organization and a team.
Nurturing a Welcoming Workplace
Trend watchers and futurists alike are indicating that the worker shortage will continue for some time. For example, in 2017, Top Sixty Over Sixty emerged with the purpose of encouraging older Canadians to reinvent themselves to meet new work and entrepreneurial challenges. They have done this by: motivating and retraining older adults; helping employers transform multigenerational workforces into innovative, intergenerational teams; advising businesses on how to attract and retain a diversely aged workforce; and showing progressive businesses how to avoid age bias in their branding, hiring and communications. Top Sixty Over Sixty endeavours to eliminate ageism and advocate for workers who still have much to contribute to the workforce.
The return of mature workers to the workforce is a trend that requires attention by employers who are struggling to fill their workplace. The advantages far outweigh the perceived disadvantages of bringing mature workers onto their teams and may be one of the most significant ways employers can address the worker and skill gaps in their companies for the foreseeable future.