So you think you know what mature-age workers need? Think again. We’ve talked with hundreds of mature-age jobseekers, workers, and retirees, and they’ve told us where Australian employers fall short.
In Australia, the average life expectancy is 15-20 years past the ‘traditional’ retirement age of 65. Already, four million people in the Australian workforce are over 45 and constitute 40 percent of the workforce. People are living longer and healthier lives, and mature-age workers in good health experience high levels of choice about whether to work or retire. On the one hand, they are physically capable of working longer; on the other hand, they’re tempted by retirement because their good health enables them to actively engage in travel and other leisure pursuits.
The perception that most mature-age workers have red-circled the day they can access retirement funds and plan to transition directly from full-time employment to full-time retirement persists. As does the assumption that mature-age workers are happy to stay within the boundaries of the job they’re already doing, with many workplaces operating under the assumption that as the workforce grows older, they may simply need to accommodate a few age-related physical declines—a matter of increasing print size and making a few more sick days available. But, attracting, retaining and motivating mature-age people requires managers to rethink the support they provide.
Mature-age workers are likely to be the most experienced and highest paid employees in your organisation, and a failure to fully engage them hurts the bottom line. A fully engaged employee delivers the full value of their salary, but a disengaged or semi-engaged employee might deliver only 60-80 percent.
The voices of mature-age workers can revolutionise the Australian workplace. Savvy employers who listen to their needs will identify creative ways to recruit talent, design jobs, offer flexibility, and manage careers across the entire lifespan–making them employers of choice not just for mature-age workers but for all workers.
Sharon and her partner are empty nesters. They want to travel at a slow pace, taking time to settle into a location and fully experience it.
"I still love this… but I'd like to spend less time doing it."
Sharon enjoys her work as a senior palliative care nurse and has no interest in full-time retirement. She thinks three work-free months a year would enable her to fulfil her travel dreams, but Sharon’s manager told her she’d only get that kind of flexibility if she took on casual work through an agency. Casual work doesn’t suit Sharon, because it doesn’t give her the opportunity to develop long term relationships with her clients—the part of the job she values most. Sharon’s wondering whether she can only satisfy her travel interests by leaving nursing behind.
Most organisations promise flexibility, but they define flexibility only in terms of flexible start or end times, and so managers are unable to accommodate workers who need bigger chunks of time to indulge in leisure or hobbies, to align with family members’ availability, or to test-drive retirement. This kind of flexibility could be achieved if organisations offered creative opportunities for job-sharing or phased retirement (for example, working 8-9 months a year instead of 12). These options would be valued by other workers too—like the postgraduate student who wants three months to finalise her thesis.
Manju has enjoyed a satisfying career in a large for-profit company; her unit’s high performance delivers her big personal bonuses every year.
"I loved this… but is this all there is?"
Manju’s at the top of her game but she doesn’t think she wants to keep doing this same thing for another 10 or 15 years. She’s been thinking more about her legacy and she talks to friends about wanting to give back to the community. She needs a change, but she doesn’t know how to broach this with her manager. Manju wonders whether she should walk away from paid work and focus on volunteering instead.
Organisational career paths often don’t offer the range of experiences needed to maintain worker satisfaction and engagement across an extended work life. Mature-age workers who have already reached the top of their career ladders and pay grades may lose interest or disengage psychologically. But these workers may only need a change in order to revitalize their work experiences.
Some organisations might offer internal opportunities for mature-age workers to rotate across jobs or units. But the greatest opportunities for organisations might be in hiring mature-age workers from dramatically different roles or industry sectors. ‘Encore careers’ in education and healthcare may be particularly attractive to mature-age workers willing to trade off salary for meaningful work.
Mark was retrenched after a career of 30 years in banking. After a short break devoted to travel and home improvement projects he is keen to return to work. However, he wants to try something new.
"I loved that… but I'd love something else now."
Mark loves outback Australia and has his eye on a job in mining. Unfortunately, he has had very little success with recruiters and employers. The gatekeepers who screen his resume pigeonhole him into banking roles without giving him the chance to try something new.
Mature-age jobseekers, in our research, sometimes sought roles dramatically different from the ones they left, but they were quickly dismissed by employers and recruiters. Managers often assume that mature-age applicants are unlikely to make a long-term commitment to an employer; they predict that ‘over-qualified’ mature-age applicants will soon be bored in an entry-level job. But sometimes it’s the challenge of learning something new that attracts the mature-age jobseeker. Managers who focus on transferable skills and enthusiasm for learning in their hiring decisions may tap into a larger and more diverse talent pool that includes job seekers of all ages who want to change their career paths.
Harry is an experienced software developer who’s worked for his company for 14 years. His company has a formal policy that requires the developers to rotate shifts on a customer service Help Desk.
"I love this…but not that."
Harry hates Help Desk and wants to focus on the technical work for the rest of his career. Harry’s told his manager his preferences, but the manager says it’s fairer to insist that all the developers work Help Desk. As a result, Harry quit his job to open a Bed and Breakfast with his partner, and his company lost one of its best developers.
Most organisations structure work into rigid one-size-fits-all ‘jobs’ or ‘roles’, but managers who think of jobs as loose bundles of ‘tasks’ can design jobs that better fit the needs of an individual worker. This kind of job-crafting can benefit a mature-age worker whose interests or skills have changed with age. That might mean shedding tasks that are no longer satisfying, or carving out more space for special projects. A job-crafting approach can benefit other workers too. For example, it can make jobs more accessible to workers with disabilities who can perform most—but not all—of the tasks listed within a job description.
Tips for Employers:
LISTEN TO YOUR MATURE-AGE WORKERS.
The mature-age people who participated in our research tried multiple times to talk with their managers about their needs, but hit a brick wall. Remember that mature-age workers are a diverse group with diverse career goals. Some mature-age workers may want to downshift, but others want to power up.
REMIND MANAGERS OF THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES TO ENGAGE MATURE-AGE WORKERS.
Managers of any age can buy into age stereotypes; older managers may believe that they are the exception that proves the rule. Deliberately question the age-based assumptions you hear from managers serving on selection panels and performance reviews. Celebrate the occasions when your organisation has successfully aligned organisational needs and a mature-age worker’s skills and interests.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX WHEN YOU HIRE.
Be open to hiring mature-age people, especially from outside your specific industry. They bring transferable skills and experience, and their enthusiasm for new experiences can be a huge asset. To attract mature-age applicants, modify your recruitment advertising to highlight intrinsic rewards—such as the opportunity to impact other people—as well as extrinsic ones.
Matching employee interests to specific tasks can generate higher levels of engagement and performance than you’d get from filling standardised roles. Don’t assume that jobs have to include the exact same tasks or the same work schedule for every employee.