There has been much focus on millennials and Gen Ys in the workplace. We have all become accustomed to hearing about the levels of entitlement or other similar theories pertaining to the digital generation. Less focus has been on the baby boomers or the aging workforce that comes with both benefits and issues for organisations.

What is the aging population? Those between 61 and 65 years of age are known as the baby boomers. They are those that were born at the end of the world war, during the 1950s golden era. The aging workforce, as is found in the name, are those that are above the age of 60. While the aging workforce used to focus on those over the age of 40, its focus is now on those aged 60 and over; although primarily, its emphasis is on 65 and over, or those that traditionally would have retired. Some studies (Gahan and Healy, 2017) have looked at the aging workforce as those over 55, who choose to carry on working because of a lack of finance and appropriate pension plan. 1 in four US workers would qualify as being part of the aging workforce when taking 55 and over as a measure, according to a study conducted by the US Department of Labor.

More and more people choose to extend their working lives for a number of reasons. Firstly, the global financial crisis left a lasting impact on people’s finances. Secondly, many people do not have adequate financial back up, nor do they have a good enough pension plan in place. State pensions would not be suffice to live on. People are living longer, they’re healthier than ever, and with advanced medical care, they’re able to remain in the workplace longer. In some cases, due to skills shortages within the baby boomer generation, more and more are asked to stay in work longer. Work also gives a sense of identity and retiring can feel like a loss to one’s self-esteem.

The traditional view of retirement is changing. Many cannot afford the luxury of retirement, and, therefore, continue to work well past the age of retirement. For organisations that cannot fill the talent gap left by retiring baby boomers, there are both advantages and disadvantages to them staying on. If all baby boomers left the workplace at 65, there would be a dreaded brain drain, as not enough talent can fit the gap.

As millennials choose to seek out alternative careers, training the younger generation can be problematic. Gen Ys choose careers that are flexible, allow for greater autonomy, and often are known as the “slasher’’ generation; holding down multiple professions at once. They choose generalised careers over specialist professions.

As a result of the aging population staying in work longer, the government has increased its spending in Australia’s greying population. The measures include $17.4 million over four years to be used in the Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers programme, with an additional $189.7 million over the next five years being used to support mature aged workers. Why is this important? According to the 2016 Census, 1 in 6 people were over the age of 65. By the end of the next decade, 1 in 3 Australians will be over the age of 55. With the high cost of living in Australia, it is no wonder than many people choose to stay in work longer. Retaining and retraining mature-aged workers is a must for the Australian economy.

Consequences for Employers

One of the current issues surrounding the multi-generational workforce is centred on conflict. How do we manage the experienced against the young, potentially inexperienced and naïve? Could it be said that the older generation are less innovative, set in their ways, and unwilling to do things differently? This may be a concern for many organisations and one that they certainly need to navigate.

As people get older, health concerns can become more apparent. They may not be as productive as they once were. They may also need more time off or support for health-related matters. Older workers may need to look after elderly parents and may want a more flexible working arrangement. Organisations need to run with the times. They also need to be flexible to the needs of their aging workforce. Providing seating and more breaks can offset the physical demands of laborious tasks. Focusing on skills over productivity and efficiency may be another way of dealing with the changes. All in all, the aging workforce have a lot to offer, but employers need to be flexible to their needs.

Other workplace issues centre on ageism and unconscious bias. HR and management may typically overlook the talent of an aging worker because they fear they may not have the physical energy to do the job. The issues primarily take place in recruitment, so having strong policies and procedures around this issue is paramount. Little focus has been on the issues of age discrimination, despite it being a very real issue.

Loss of Identity: Changing Roles

With age comes change. Many of the issues around the aging workforce are centred on the psychological and not just the physical. For many, they opt to take on a management role and stop practising in their profession. An example of this is a doctor or lawyer who stop practising medicine or law and step into a leadership role. Often, they lose a sense of self as their identity shifts from physician or lawyer to one of manager.

While this loss of identity is more prevalent in those who retire, changes like this do impact on people’s sense of self. This is especially so if the individual has practised in their professional field for a long time. In cases like this, counselling or coaching can help with the transitional nature of this change.

Of course, physical changes in the body can also affect the overall sense of wellbeing. This is normal. With age, the pace in which a person can work slows. Declining health can place an added burden on an individual’s identity, especially when they have been so independent in the past.