How to reconcile older worker needs with the digitalisation of workplaces

In the UK, as in much of western Europe, we are living in an increasingly ageing society, with improvements in health and medical technology enabling us to live longer, healthier lives.

As a result, the proportion of people in work who are aged over 50 is now bigger than it has ever been, and official figures suggest this group is only expected to continue to grow, reaching an estimated 34% by 2050, as the younger demographics shrink.

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This can be seen as a significant achievement for the modern way of life, bringing countless benefits for society such as new heights in the depth and breadth of knowledge, wisdom, and experience that our older peers can offer.

However, how can we best enable an older population to continue contributing to society, and realise the value that this group can bring?

What meaningful steps can we take to take advantage of some of the opportunities that come with this societal shift?

A key issue to overcome is that ongoing technological advancements, such as the accelerated progress of digitalisation, have the potential to alienate older workers or even encourage them to leave the workforce early.

According to the Centre for Ageing Better, over a third of older workers worry that, in a technologically advancing environment, they are disadvantaged by their age.

Instead of freeing people up to use the more valuable parts of their skillset, innovation could be a driving factor for earlier retirement, which could lead to labour shortages and a loss of important experience.

The challenge is not just loss of confidence.

The Chartered Management Institute found that employers are much more reluctant to hire older workers than younger ones.

This is despite evidence from organisations like McKinsey showing that more diverse teams tend to be more successful, and serves only to compound the exclusion of older talent from the workforce.

There are significant implications linked to the existence of a growing demographic of economically inactive members of society, including the costs to organisations of losing experienced staff.

The consequences for insufficiently responding to this could include ongoing challenges with tightening labour markets, high levels of job vacancies, and unmanageable wage inflation, whereas as Age UK has noted, properly retaining older people in the workforce could contribute up to an estimated £18 billion GDP a year.

Well-managed, easily accessible lifelong learning can help tackle this.

As digital technologies transform workplaces, organisations that invest in enabling workers of all ages to update their skills and learn new, specialist ones will be best placed to thrive.

Recognising that organisations will be best placed to continue to grow and succeed by retaining their older, more experienced talent, but also that knowing how to train and develop older workers can be complex, BSI convened a committee to develop best practice guidance on how to enable this: Ageing Societies.

The document, general requirements and guidelines for an age-inclusive workforce (BS ISO 25550:2022), sets out strategies such as making entry-level jobs or apprenticeships available to older people, or implementing strategies to enable continued workforce participation for older people with specific needs, such as those experiencing the menopause, for example.

The latter is also covered in BSI’s recent guidance for employers on supporting colleagues through the menopause.

The aim of these materials is to provide a framework for organisations to evaluate their systems, practices, and behaviours, providing insight for what could be changed or adapted to help ensure they keep older people engaged and productive in their work, with the potential to create a more successful, age inclusive workforce.

Enabling older people to remain productive and in work for longer can offer a broad range of benefits to them, to organisations, and to society in general.

Acknowledging the inhibitors to older people feeling able to continue in their careers can be a good starting point, alongside employers making it a priority to bridge the gap with meaningful and appropriate interventions that enable people to continue making the best use of their experience.

Ultimately, our population is getting older, and technological innovation is showing no sign of slowing down.

To take advantage of this rather than see it as an inconvenient truth, organisations can prioritise their people and embrace an age-inclusive approach across training, research and development, and all aspects of innovation.

Diversity of talents, skills, and expertise gained through a long and fruitful career can be valuable assets to any organisation.

Employers that actively invest in a culture of change, overcoming ageism in the workplace and upskilling their people to respond to new innovation have the opportunity to unlock a wealth of talent.

Anne Hayes is director of Sectors, BSI