How British businesses can halt the exodus of older workers
Sarah Greenberg, Director of Clinical Design and Partnerships at BetterUp, looks at how British businesses can halt the exodus of older workers.
Economists at the International Monetary Fund found that a whopping 36% of the pandemic era “Great Resignation” in the UK can be explained by an exodus of older workers.
The percentage of economically inactive (or non-working) 50-64-year-olds jumped from a 50-year low of 25.5% in January 2019 to 26.9% in March 2021. This means over 250,000 workers in this age bracket left the workforce since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This also signifies a reversal in the pre-pandemic trend of workers retiring later.
Why this matters
An exodus of workers aged 50-64 means organisations are losing some of the most experienced employees available. Any leader concerned with attracting and retaining top talent should be paying attention, as again this is one of the common threads explaining the “Great Resignation” in the UK.
A loss of older workers means a loss of leaders, deeply networked relationships, and tacit knowledge.
It also means a loss of a particular type of high capacity unique to those more experienced. While younger adults tend to show higher levels of “fluid intelligence”, older adults show higher levels of “crystallised intelligence.” Both terms coined by psychologist Raymond Catell in the 1960s, fluid intelligence is the capacity to think flexibly while crystalised intelligence depends on the acquisition of learning and experience. While fluid intelligence seems to peak in the late 20s, crystallised intelligence can grow well into one’s 70s.
Fluid intelligence can be an engine to “move fast and break things.” Crystallised intelligence is the wisdom upon which organisations can build from a strong foundation of expertise and avoid costly rookie mistakes. It’s easy to see the value of both–especially in combination.
In order to avoid the loss of their most experienced workers, it helps to understand the reason behind the exodus.
A shifting balance between risk and reward
One simple way to look at an individual’s decision to work is to examine the balance of “push” factors, the aspects that push someone away from their work, and “pull” factors, the aspects of work that keep one coming back.
Of course, the most obvious “pull” factor is economic necessity. We work because we need a paycheck and benefits. Other “pull” factors are higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At best, work can provide a sense of belonging, meaning, purpose, challenge, healthy routine, and more.
Common “push” factors driving someone away from a specific position include an unhelpful (or even toxic) manager, stress, burnout, lack of engagement, or more enticing alternatives. A “push” factor could also be literally getting pushed out via furlough or job loss.
In Covid, the balance between the “push” and “pull” factors shifted, though certainly not in a way that was equal across the workforce. For the most financially well off, as stocks and home values soared, a paycheck became less of a necessity. For this group, work certainly needs to offer more than an economic benefit.
Many employees who otherwise would have stayed in their jobs were driven away by elevated rates of stress and burnout. And this doesn’t discriminate based on level or passion for their work, with research revealing that 31% of workers feel both motivated to do their best and burned out by their work.
For those working in person, the elevated risk of health concerns made going to work a more risky proposition. Indeed, data shows those with flexible, remote work were more likely to stay.
Of course, many workers were furloughed or experienced job loss. Though there is a current excess of vacancies, workers as young as 50 face ageism and discrimination that make finding a new role more difficult.
Within the UK data, it’s not yet clear exactly how many workers “chose” early retirement, how many were forced into it by lack of options, and how the tides will shift in the coming years. But it is clear that companies can, by shifting the balance of risk and reward, do a much better job of attracting and retaining experienced employees.
What leaders can do
This sudden surge in older generations leaving the workforce gives employers an opportunity to change their benefits and processes to enhance the factors that retain and engage older employees so they continue to build value and contribute to an inclusive culture.
One clear retention strategy is flexible work. Older employees with the choice to work remotely were more likely to remain active, and broadly speaking, worker autonomy is positive for inclusion, retention, and performance.
Employers can also evaluate benefits and perks to ensure they account for needs across generations. For example, benefits that support new parents can be expanded to support caregivers more broadly.
Ageism, a rampant form of discrimination which Financial Times’s Lucy Kellaway dubbed “an unspoken prejudice and a puzzling discrimination against our future selves”, must be addressed.
As an individual, try practicing the “reverse it” technique to identify unconscious bias. For example, if you hear someone (or yourself) state a myth such as “older people have trouble with technology,” sub in another group and see if it still sounds okay. If you are okay with saying “women have trouble with technology”, seek more support to overcome bias.
As an organisation, regularly analyse your data on recruitment, acceptance, and retention of employees 50 and over. Finally, talk to your team about needs, wants, and pain points. Invite feedback.
Our research has found that employees who receive safe, open communication at work feel a greater sense of belonging to their organisation (by 15%) and perceive that their organisation cares about their wellbeing (by 14%).
Knowing that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to retention should empower employers to truly listen to the unique needs of their people and create an opportunity to address gaps proactively.