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The Cost of Ignoring Older Workers

4 ways employers can address the results of a recent study

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot

Companies too often take for granted their loyal older workers, focusing on newer arrivals while still expecting the employees in their 50s and 60s to remain engaged at work. There are significant financial and motivational implications to this kind of neglect.

Researchers at the University of South Australia and the University of Melbourne documented this recently after surveying 666 Australian workers between age 45 and 75. They found that the workers treated this way were less devoted to their company, less energized by their jobs and had engagement levels about 20 percent lower than in more welcoming and helpful environments.

As someone specializing in helping organizations and individuals solve intergenerational challenges among work colleagues and with clients, I wasn’t surprised at these results.

When Phased Retirement Isn't Offered to Older Workers

The study also revealed that older employees fared worst in workplaces that, among other things, had no phased retirement practices.

Yet older workers who are unhappy near the tail end of their careers are more likely to hang onto their jobs rather than look for a new one (which probably would be difficult to find), according to professor Carol Kulik, an author of the study. That reminded me of the old HR joke:

What if we train them and they leave?

What if we don’t train them and they stay?

Since the study found that most of the employers surveyed didn’t provide programs to assist or welcome older workers, the older employees were apt to worry about age bias. That sometimes led to poorer performance by these workers, reinforcing persistent age stereotypes by the employers.

How Older Workers Were Perceived

The paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal said, “mature-age employees are commonly perceived to be less productive than their younger counterparts. They are also viewed as lacking initiative, disinterested in learning or developing, and resistant to change.”

Before I offer suggestions about what could be done to address the study’s findings, I’d like to note a few things we don’t know about these workplaces surveyed:

  • Is the poor treatment of the older workers intentional or just neglectful or ignorance?
  • What was the reaction when employers were told the results of the study?
  • Are the actions and tensions reported traced to employers and management or to younger generations of workers eager to move up?
  • How prevalent is ageism in Australia’s culture?

4 Ways Employers Can Help

That said, I think employers would be wise to consider the following four actions to avoid the detrimental outcomes reported:


1. Mutual or reciprocal mentoring  The study’s authors said the respondents ranked their organizations poorly for the availability of reverse-mentoring programs. But mentoring must go both ways, so the older and younger generations can learn from each other and are equally regarded as “experts” in something the others can benefit from.

2. Confidence building  The study found older workers had their self-esteem and confidence shaken by the age bias. So there is a need to build confidence among such employees along with upgrading their skills as needed.

However, the problem may be exacerbated by situations where younger workers are insecure about managing older workers. Employers need to make sure that young managers and teammates don’t feel threatened by older workers’ experience and deeper knowledge. Facilitated dialogues among the generations, especially in work teams, as well as coaching can develop intergenerational rapport, respect and confidence of both older and younger.

3. Role shifting Employers should assign roles according to the skills, judgment and maturity needed for the goals and work to be accomplished, regardless of age. That means older workers need to be placed in appropriate roles, not just kept in senior positions for their whole tenure even when younger workers are more suitable for the tasks.

The organizational culture needs to adapt to this idea and older workers must be flexible about shifting roles and creating value in new ways to retain their employment. At the same time, younger workers need to respect the new roles and not make their older colleagues feel they are being demoted. This is a sensitive mindshift.

4. Awareness training  Age-diversity training is sorely needed in many organizations to increase appreciation, respect and harmony in the workplace. It can also raise the engagement, productivity and profitability quotient of all workers. Unhappy staffers who are “just putting in their time” isn’t good for anyone.

As the study noted, companies suffer financially when older employees are ignored or mistreated. Companies need to take this seriously and implement steps to assure all their workers are motivated to put out their best efforts.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2017.

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Phyllis Weiss Haserot, a passionate champion of cross-generational conversation and President of Practice Development Counsel, helps organizations and individuals solve inter-generational challenges among work colleagues and with clients to achieve enviable productivity, knowledge transfer, engagement, retention, succession planning and business development results. Reach her at [email protected] and Read More
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