Employers and hiring managers often label workers over 50 as bored, lethargic and unengaged. I resent and disagree with that description.
But according to a new Gallup report, The 2013 State of the American Workplace, there may (unfortunately) be more than a kernel of truth to the stereotype.
The Most Actively Disengaged
The study found that boomers (now ages 49 to 67) are the least engaged generation of today’s workforce and — it gets worse — the most “actively disengaged.”
Gallup’s report indicates that only 26 percent of boomers are engaged at work, meaning they “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company,” and nearly 1 in 4 boomers (23 percent) are actively disengaged. Employees who are actively disengaged, Gallup says, are not merely unhappy at work, they’re “busy acting out their unhappiness.”
That’s troubling, and not just from a career standpoint. An earlier study by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College found that staying engaged in your 50s and 60s is directly linked to overall well being. As Boston College researcher Christina Matz-Costa wrote on Next Avenue, people who reported being highly engaged in work, volunteering, caregiving or educational activities had significantly higher scores for life satisfaction and mental health than those who were relatively unengaged.
Why Boomers Are Unengaged on the Job
As I read through the new Gallup workplace report, I wondered, What gives? Why are so many boomers feeling so disconnected from their jobs at the point in their careers when they should be on a roll?
To find out, I turned to Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management and well-being. He told me that boomers are less confident about their future role in their organizations than other generations. “But they are also less likely than younger generations to say they want to look for a new job,” Harter added. “My interpretation is that they have very busy lives, are invested in their current jobs and have less choice for mobility to other workplaces.”
The Vicious Cycle of Work Disengagement
As a career coach, I’ve found that many people in their 50s and 60s are squeezed to the max at work (as are lots of other workers). But for a variety of reasons, including concerns about age discrimination and the tough economy, they’re finding it more difficult than their younger colleagues to make a job change. Yet when they stay where they are, they frequently feel overworked and undervalued.
Unfortunately this dynamic creates a vicious cycle: When you’re unhappy at work, you tend to disengage. High levels of disengagement lead to sub-par performance. Poor performance leads to a tenuous job situation. And a tenuous job situation can result in being fired.
The Problem Costs Firms Over $450 Billion
So where does that leave you if you’re not “feeling it” at your job but would prefer not to quit?
Well, if you’re lucky, your management might get wind of the Gallup report and decide it's time to make a change in the way your company treats its older employees. Harter told me that workers’ lives (and their organizations’ performance) greatly improve with a strong manager who “engages them in their future while taking into consideration their busy lives.”
Smart companies are taking notice because engagement directly impacts their bottom line: Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. businesses $450 billion to $550 billion a year.
3 Keys to Becoming More Engaged at Work
But don't wait for management to come around. There are three steps you should consider to proactively improve your morale and your performance. They might save your job and make you more enthusiastic about going to work each morning.
1. Discover and leverage your strengths. The Gallup report makes it exceedingly clear that the happiest employees are those who are able to maximize their strong points.
“When employees know and use their strengths, they are more engaged, have higher performance and are less likely to leave their company,” the study said.
According to Gallup, people who take this approach every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job than those who don’t.
Getting in touch with your strengths and exploiting them shouldn’t be hard, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I meet with people over 50 who can’t quite figure out what their natural skills and talents are. They have little difficulty sharing what they don’t do well, but when I ask them about their strengths, they freeze or pooh-pooh them.
I recently worked with a client who displayed a wonderful ability to get her teenagers to open up about their personal problems. When I pointed this out to her, she rolled her eyes. “Oh please, Nancy — it’s no big deal,” she said.
I’m happy to tell you that this client has since decided to explore ways to leverage her talent. She's now pursuing a master’s degree in social work, with plans to counsel teenagers who have eating disorders.
In a Next Avenue blog post about the third chapter of a career, OgilvyOne chairman and chief executive Brian Fetherstonhaugh offered this advice: “Think of your eBay factor. Say to yourself: ‘If at age 60, I was put up for auction on eBay, who would bid for me?’ If neither a paying organization nor a not-for-profit would, go do something about it to make yourself more valuable.”
Even if you’re not in a position to go back to school or switch jobs, it pays to maximize your particular gifts and talents.
Once you really appreciate the full range of what you do best, begin trying to shift your duties and put your talents to use. Take on new responsibilities that leverage your strengths and let your boss know about your accomplishments. This could help you become a star on the job.
2. Find a boss who really cares about you. I know, I know. If it were only that easy!
I recognize that most people can’t just magically switch bosses. But if you have the opportunity to take on a new assignment with a different and particularly caring manager, grab it.
Working for supportive managers matters to all age groups, but according to the Gallup report, “more so than other generations, baby boomers respond to managers who make an extra effort to show that they care.”
If you’re stuck working for a difficult boss, you can still ask other colleagues to mentor you and to provide ongoing support.
3. Look for ways to engage your strengths and talents outside of work. Gallup’s studies show that the more hours each day you use your strengths to do what you do best — not just when you’re at work — the better you’ll feel. And the better you feel, the likelier you’ll become more engaged at your job.
So whether you’re, say, a skilled painter, a talented chef or a master carpenter (even if you don’t make a dime from these talents), it’s important to incorporate that strength into your life on a more regular basis.
Try spending more time on a fulfilling hobby or engage in a meaningful volunteer assignment that lets you do what you’re great at. Those extra hours of engagement outside the office will fortify and restore you — even during the most difficult days on the job.
Who knows? Maybe if more of us boomers start doing these things, the next Gallup workplace engagement survey will reveal very different results.