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HR strategies for a multigenerational workforce

In her 2003 paper, "Human resource costs and benefits of maintaining a mature-age workforce", Libby Brooke stated that the generally accepted definition of an aged worker is someone 45 years and over.

That hardly seems credible when you read figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that show that in September 2012, the number of people aged 65 and over employed in the UK reached 929,355, a jump of 34,000 on the previous year.

What Brooke was actually defining was that HR strategies must deal with an ageing workforce that includes retaining ageing workers for longer, in addition to attracting and retaining younger workers.

But let's look back for a minute at the UK statistics. It is not surprising that we are seeing an increase in the number of ageing baby boomers remaining in employment. The principal reason for this is the poorly performing global economy. They clearly understand that, faced with declining annuity rates and the lack of final salary pension schemes, the best retirement plan is to keep earning an income while they can.

The fact that increasing numbers of older workers are hanging on to their jobs suggests that there could be potential for intergenerational conflict. Young managers looking to advance their careers into senior management roles are being hampered by those ahead of them who are remaining in the available top management positions, effectively blocking the promotion pipeline.

However, while personal circumstances affect an individual's decision to remain in employment or take retirement, the notion of intergenerational conflict doesn't withstand scrutiny. It is often the case that promotion opportunities during a recession diminish, but history demonstrates that once economies improve, there is usually a mass exodus of older workers, particularly those close to or at retirement age. The economy creates jobs for those who want them.

What HR managers need to be concentrating on in the short-to medium-term is how to retain and motivate young managers to stay for the long haul. Additionally, they need to develop strategies to ensure that, at the same time, vital intellectual capital is retained and protected. While on the one hand, the exit of ageing workers from the organisation does provide opportunities for the promotion of younger workers - which is a positive retention strategy on the other, it can bring the loss of significant organisational knowledge and experience.

When the economy does improve, as it will, HR may not have too many problems filling the vacated senior management positions, but what of those at the junior level? One solution is to look at the current senior management lineup, particularly those at or near retirement age. Many of them, if the circumstances were different, would probably choose to retire but, if that is less of an option for both financial and lifestyle reasons, they could find it attractive to "move down" to a less strenuous role - maintaining a salary while enjoying a healthier work/life balance. This provides the opportunity for them to impart their imbued knowledge and wisdom (the corporate DNA) to younger managers, while remaining valuable and valued members of the team.

It is vital that all HR strategies developed be multigenerational, not just for the aged workers. Young and inexperienced managers will be supervising older and more experienced workers, which will bring about its own challengers. Generation Y's attitudes to the job, its preferred styles of working and its expectations of management are all shaped by its times, not those of previous generations. This generation also prefers to work in a collaborative environment, not one that is autocratic and hierarchical. There may be deference to age and experience but this can be overcome by actively encouraging a fusion of young thinking with experience, propelling the company forward into a sustainable phase of growth.

David Dumeresque (pictured) is a partner at executive search firm, Tyzack Partners