27 September 2023

New age thinking: Why the public sector needs to invest in older workers

Start the conversation

Bradley Schurman and T. J. Londagin* identify five ways to maximise the contributions of older workers and build strong, generationally diverse teams in the public sector.

Photo: Bruce Mars from Pexels

For years, public sector leaders have grappled with a workforce crisis.

Fewer and fewer young people are entering public service, and more and more workers are staying past traditional retirement age.

Public sector leaders have historically focused on transferring skills and knowledge from older employees to younger ones, anticipating that there would eventually be an exodus of older workers.

While transferring skills remains necessary, these leaders also need to embrace and nurture the skills that older workers have acquired while at the same time luring younger workers into public careers and equipping them with older workers’ knowledge immediately.

AARP explored intergenerational teams in its 2016 report Disrupt Ageing in the Workforce.

Author Lori Trawinski explained that “by removing the lens of age as a way to view existing or potential employees, we shift the focus to their abilities, skills, and knowledge.”

Further, she shared, “We must also recognise that differences exist in the experiences, expectations, styles, and perspectives of people from different generations.”

“While differences can sometimes be a source of conflict, these same differences can become a source of strength and innovation when addressed and managed well.”

Here are five ways to capitalise on the contributions of older, experienced workers while building a generationally diverse workforce:

  1. Embed knowledge transfer into your culture.

The traditional last-minute approach to passing knowledge from retiring workers to younger ones isn’t inherently wrong.

It’s just shortsighted and doesn’t produce optimal outcomes.

Knowledge transfer needs to be an ongoing practice that begins on every worker’s first day on the job and continues until his or her last day.

Moreover, managers should focus on continual skills transfer back and forth between experienced and less-experienced employees.

Formal mentoring programs are a natural solution to this challenge.

However, organisations should also invest in “reverse mentoring,” which empowers younger workers to share their knowledge with more experienced employees and managers.

  1. Educate, educate, educate.

Public sector employees stay in their jobs nearly twice as long as private sector ones.

Further, older workers tend to stay around longer than their younger counterparts.

This means public sector employees, especially older ones, have the potential to be great assets, but they may also need continuing education.

It’s imperative that public sector employees have the tools they need to succeed both early on and later in their careers.

Brian Elms, a public sector innovation expert, explains: “Employees, just like infrastructure assets, require ongoing care and investments.”

“When we re-engage our strongest assets in our organisations, our employees, we spark creativity and innovation throughout our workforce.”

  1. Communicate in ways that work.

Time after time, workforce experts have identified rifts in the way people from different generations speak with one another.

Remember the Baby Boomers’ clarion call not to trust anyone over 30?

Today, Millennials and members of Generation Z don’t trust anyone who doesn’t use technology to communicate.

Organisations should invest in technology that facilitates and encourages greater communication and collaboration between generations.

However, the benefits of communications technology can only be realised if staff share in the vision and are trained to use the technology effectively.

  1. Empower employees.

Successful private and public sector employers have learned this lesson.

Let employees tell you how they want to work, learn and serve.

Many employee engagement and benefits strategies are built with a younger workforce in mind and focus on “how do we keep you for the next five to 10 years?” without much thought given to “how do we make the most out of your final five to 10 years?”

Create that balance by asking employees how best to work with their needs and aspirations.

Build an engagement and benefits structure that embraces generational wants and needs.

  1. End ageism.

Ageism is perhaps the most pervasive and most permitted bias allowed in the workplace, regardless of legal prohibitions against the practice.

Studies have shown that it negatively impacts organisational effectiveness.

Sensitivity to age bias for workers young and old helps employers make the workforce more welcoming and stronger across generations.

According to Mary Barnes, Director of Workforce Transformation at the US General Services Administration, “Ageism can be either prejudging someone based on their age or treating them with kid gloves and lowering your expectations of them because of their age.”

“If you want to address ageism in the workplace, you need to practise basic good management.”

“Set clear expectations for success, leverage everyone’s individual strengths, and treat everyone on the team equitably.”

“The employee–supervisor contract means employees should all feel heard, understood and respected.”

“Managers must understand this is true of any employee no matter their age or years of service.”

“You have to consider what it is going to take to make that individual employee, with individual strengths, successful.”

It’s foolish for organisations to ignore the opportunities presented by older workers who stay longer in their public sector careers.

Investing in older workers will improve their contributions as well as the overall ability of public sector organisations to serve the public.

* Bradley Schurman is Managing Partner and a co-founder of global advisory group EconomyFour. T. J. Londagin is CEO and co-founder of management consulting firm Totem.

This article first appeared at www.shrm.org.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.