August 18, 2014
Amongst all the talk about Generation Y and its impact on the world of work, it can be easy to miss the fact that the modern workplace is not defined by one particular generation, but a number of them. The multi-generational workplace has significant implications for the way we design and manage offices. While we must avoid the more obvious stereotypes about the needs of different age groups, we must still offer spaces that can meet a wide range of cultural, physical and technological needs if we are to create productive workplaces.The latest organisation to bang the drum for the multi-generational workplace is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. It has published new research together with the Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives into the experiences and attitudes of SMEs towards age diversity at work.
It claims that while ‘an ageing population is giving rise to an increasingly age diverse labour market, few small businesses are doing enough, or anything at all, to appeal to workers of different ages and unlock the benefits they bring’.
The good news is that the report, ‘Age diversity in SMEs: reaping the benefits‘, found that the overwhelming majority of the 600 business owners who took part believed strongly that older workers have a valuable contribution to make to the success of organisations.
This is just as well given how many older workers there now are in the British workforce. According to data from the Department of Work and Pensions, there have never been more over 50s in work in the UK than there are right now. The DWP claims that there are 2 million more over-50s in jobs than there were 15 years ago and they will form a third of the workforce by 2020. And they will want their own say on things just as much as the much talked about millennials.
The figures from the DWP show the number of people aged 50 to 64 in employment has reached 7.7 million, which is not only an increase in overall terms but also represents a jump in the proportion within the total workforce. The increase is partly down to necessity and a change in the law from 2011 which means employers can no longer oblige staff to leave employment at 65 as they once did, but also because more people actually want to carry on and many of them remain ambitious. The DWP report showed the average age at which men retire has risen from 63.1 in 1993 to 64.8 today. For women it is up from 60.9 to 62.6.
The DWP has also championed the cause of older workers for practical reasons, predicting that the UK will create 13.5 million jobs over the next ten years but only 7 million young people will enter the workforce over that period. The upshot is that the future workplace will not be dominated by Gen Y, but shared by everybody.
This will mean finding ways of balancing the needs, attitudes and skills of different generations. But it also means challenging stereotypes and not assuming anything. For example, research published by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin found that older workers, far from being forgetful old farts, actually perform more consistently in memory tests than younger people even if their overall performance was lower and that there was a great deal of variability between the performance of individuals within age groups.
What this means in practice is that we must do away with stereotypes and seek to attract the best people for the job regardless of their age. According to the CIPD report however, this is precisely what the UK’s SME are not doing. Their research shows that small businesses are not doing as much as they could do to attract, recruit and support workers of diverse ages. And while SMEs believe that training older employees is a good return on their investment, there are other areas where they need to improve their offering to ensure that they can support more mature employees.
One of the key findings of the report relates directly to workplace wellness and health. A third of SMEs surveyed do not offer any support for the extension of working life whatsoever, while over a third don’t have any health or wellbeing provisions in place. Large employers are much more tuned into the needs of older workers; only a fifth surveyed by the CIPD last year said they did nothing to ‘support the extension of working life’.
There is a clear challenge here but we have the tools with which to meet it better than at any time in history. The options available to us in terms of technology and office design and fit-out mean we can create environments that foster wellbeing and productivity regardless of age, anthropometrics, culture, physical fitness and a range of other factors.
Justin Miller is the sales director of office furniture and ergonomics specialist Wellworking.