HR Architect: Saturday Shoutout!!! Ageing Workforce (Part 1)

Saturday Shoutout!!! Ageing Workforce  (Part 1)

Issue 2 | Number 2 | 19 May 2012

Work and Age Revisited

Did anyone visit their HR department this week and see the pink elephant or the 800lb gorilla in the room.  Possibly, they are one of the HR issues that we tend to overlook or ignore and have chosen consciously to avoid dealing with as a big looming workforce issue.

This article is the first of a series looking at the current dilemma of the “Ageing Workforce”.

This year the oldest of the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are turning 66. About 10,000 Boomers will reach age 65 every day for the next two decades.  We will now begin to see these people leave the workforce.  Sure, the current economic downturn is causing some Boomers to delay their retirement, but sooner or later they’ll decide to retire (according to UNC Executive Development 2011).

Taking steps to ensure mature-aged workers pass on important knowledge and skills before they retire is well worth the effort, but many employers are doing “too little too late”, says Sageco creative director, Catriona Byrne.

David DeLong calls this knowledge that is not stored, retrieved and transferred as “lost knowledge.” The Boomers will take a lot of critical knowledge with them when they leave.  Experts divide this critical knowledge into two parts: explicit and tacit, says Vilet International President, Jacque Vilet

  • Explicit knowledge refers to information that can be easily explained and stored in databases or manuals.
  • Tacit knowledge is much harder to capture and pass on because it includes experience, stories, impressions and creative solutions. Tacit knowledge is also much harder to get from people because it accumulates over years of experience, and they may not even know how to verbalize it. Sometimes they don’t even know they have it, says Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

Tacit knowledge is a big problem, and makes up the majority of “lost knowledge.”

Boomers have a unique character trait. Through the years they have kept a vast amount of knowledge about their jobs to themselves.  It has been part of a “job protection” syndrome throughout their careers. It added value and importance to them.  The thinking was that if an employee was the only one in a department/organisation that knew something important, then he or she was valuable. Even today some Boomers have the belief that younger employees should “pay their dues” and learn by trial and error like they did.

Executives have known about “lost knowledge” and retiring Boomers for years, and yet very few companies have taken steps to insure that there is some sort of effective knowledge transfer from Boomers to younger employees.

Do executives know what they are losing?

The more clearly you can articulate where retirements are going to cause real damage to the company, the more likely you are to be able to take meaningful action.

“In getting started it is recommended that organisations that are serious about becoming age friendly should first undertake a stock-take, says Partners in Change director Geoff Pearman.  “They should look at their key demographics, audit their people policies for age-friendliness and survey staff on their intentions”, he says.  “Bringing this information together in one place along with other information such as engagement surveys can provide an assessment of risk and help identify what needs to be done”.  “It is also an effective means for engaging strategically with senior management and creating a platform for organisational change.”

The stock-take is only one part of the Staying-On Program which Geoff describes a whole organisation approach focused on culture change, retention, engagement and productivity.  It has three sub-themes – Staying Engaged, Staying Healthy and Staying Connected – with the core message to staff of all ages being: The message is “We want you to stay on, but we want you to be engaged and contributing, we want you to be healthy and if you do leave we want you to stay connected to us.”

The Staying-On Program starts to stimulate a discussion at an organisational level as well as challenging some of our traditional human resource management beliefs and practices. In workshops run with managers the full range of myths and stereotypes about older workers and all the reasons why they need to just move on are aired. These include we need “fresh ideas”, “people with energy”, “staff who don’t need time off for hip replacements” and “people who are up to date with the technology”

Finally, an extract from the AHRI Mature Age Workforce Participation Survey (2012) which is quite pertinent and should not be dismissed – “While it’s recognised that improving employment participation will not amount to a silver bullet for fixing the productivity problem by itself, it’s one of the factors that could contribute to improving it”.  “That said, whatever policy initiatives may be put in place, finally improvements in productivity will depend on decisions made by businesses and activity within workplaces”.

In the second article on the Ageing Workforce, we will look at how Australian organisations are taking action, how it is working for them and what they are learning.  Don’t miss it – there are some really back-to-basics strategies being used to ensure the transfer of knowledge!

Graphics: Resourceful Workforce

Next week’s blog – Ageing Workforce (Part 2)

If you find these updates useful, feel free to forward on to a work colleague or friend.

About the Author

To fulfil his professional and personal career aspirations, Tony Wiggins created ‘The HR Architect’ brand in 2009.  With a well-grounded focus and passion for HR, he thrives on working across his networks as a thought leader in ‘making a difference’ in the HR arena.

Tony Wiggins is the Founder and UX Editor of Saturday Shoutout!!! and The HR Architect Spends 5 Minutes with …. Tony utilises the blog ‘The HR Architect’ as a social media network and platform that empowers HR professionals to network, assist and support one another, spanning different countries, subcultures and niches.  Contact Tony at or on Twitter @tonywiggin.

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