As published on HRzone
Posted by Dianne Bown-Wilson, chief executive of in my prime in Managing people, Business lifestyle on Tue, 27/03/2012 – 15:43
Of all the things that we aspire to during our career, being an ‘older worker’ probably isn’t one of them.
Yet, as we age, this identity is thrust upon us and, with it, a range of stereotypes based on other people’s perceptions.
As a 56-year old manager recently pointed out: “Suddenly all that people seem to see is your grey hair, and their attitudes toward you start to change.”
But as studies have confirmed, individuals don’t primarily identify with being ‘older workers’ themselves, but rather as still being the person that they feel they have always been. No wonder that this situation can generate conflicting feelings about one’s position as an older person in today’s workplace.
Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD professor of organizational behaviour and author of ‘Working Identity’ maintains that our identity at work is an amalgam of how we see ourselves in our professional role, what we convey about ourselves to others and, ultimately, how we live our working lives.
But for older workers facing change at a number of levels, this scenario may generate a variety of problems. For example, after many years in a given role, older employees may have an entrenched view of their work-related identity.
They may also become defensive as they realise that their career has plateaued and become increasingly withdrawn as they perceive a future where working life is likely to just involve ‘more of the same’. But many identity issues for older workers also emanate from changes to the nature of their work.
In his book ‘The Start-up of You’, LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman, says: “There used to be a long-term pact between employee and employer that guaranteed lifetime employment in exchange for lifetime loyalty; this pact has been replaced by a performance-based, short-term contract that’s perpetually up for renewal by both sides.”
For many older people who started work in a time of jobs-for-life, dealing with today’s lack of security and uncertainty in career progression terms can be traumatic and challenging. At worst, they may feel short-changed; at best, uncertain of how to negotiate this unfamiliar terrain in order to continue to being successful.
The situation has only been made worse by phenomena such as globalisation and technology, which have fuelled demand for new skills, increased levels of flexibility and continuous learning.
As a result of all of this, older people can fear losing their status and expertise and start questioning their purpose and relevance, while wondering whether and for how long they can keep up the pace. These pressures can also lead to generally unspoken fears along the lines of ‘who am I these days?’ and ‘what do others expect from me?’
One of the issues is that stereotypes about older workers tend to be based on a range of either conscious or unconscious assumptions. These include the belief that they are resistant to change; are slower and less flexible; are reluctant to participate in training or re-training and resent younger managers or colleagues.
The majority of older workers can overcome these perceptions by virtue of their own continuing high performance, adaptability and resilience levels, however. But some do inevitably struggle with change and this scenario can lead to behaviours and attitudes that serve to reinforce negative stereotypes.
For example, older people may be fearful of losing their jobs and of being unable to find another one due to their age. They may also feel threatened by younger colleagues and afraid that they are starting to underperform.
Such fear and defensiveness can lead to individuals feeling resentful and aggrieved, but such feelings not only serve to entrench ageist perceptions but can also damage their own position.
As a result, HR professionals and line managers who recognise this situation and appreciate the validity of such concerns should take steps to deal with them straight away in order to prevent them from becoming entrenched.
But dealing with older workers’ attitudes and behaviours effectively does entail understanding something of each individual’s personal circumstances. For instance, for many people, as both their children and parents age and grandchildren start to arrive, it is a time of great personal change and potential role conflict.
But the practical implications of supporting younger and older generations at the same time may generate new financial and emotional pressures. Retirement starts to loom, but it may be viewed more as a concern than something to be welcomed.
As for continuing to work, older employees have a range of different aspirations – some will want to continue progressing, for example, while others may want to slow down and put in fewer hours or take on less responsibility.
Some may want to change roles, careers, or even become self-employed but they may also lack the confidence to do so. Others might feel frustrated and marginalised on realising that they are perceived as ‘older’ and on feeling that they are being overlooked in terms of further development.
Still others may be bored and lack an interesting challenge, however, or they may be stressed, facing burn-out and lacking any kind of work/life balance.
Awareness of these and other concerns should ideally come naturally through ongoing informal communication at line manager level, where issues can be dealt with sensitively and appropriately.
Pertinent responses might include discussing various options such as flexible working, particularly for those with caring responsibilities, or re-training/upskilling for those who need to be reassured of their continuing value.
Appraisals and performance management processes are likewise fundamental as a means of providing focused feedback and they should be used as a forum to set goals and future direction.
However, much can also be done on an informal basis. Mixed age teams, ‘buddying’ schemes and the involvement of older people in project work can both benefit the organisation and help older workers increase their comfort levels around change.
Mentoring and coaching programmes can likewise reinforce older people’s sense of value and assist them in exploring their changing identity.
Alongside such support, however, training around financial, life planning and work-life balance should be also provided for workers of all ages rather than just the usual ‘too little, too late’ pre-retirement programmes.
Health and wellness initiatives are likewise vital and should involve all generations in order to reinforce the message that older workers must be included and valued rather than simply maginalised.
Ultimately, supporting older workers effectively comes down to recognising that, although some are having to work longer purely for financial reasons, many find personal meaning in their employment and are committed to it.
“I am an engineer and a good one,” a 67-year old told me recently. “This is who I am and as long as I can deliver what they need, why does it matter how old I am?”
Dianne Bown-Wilson is chief executive of workplace age management and diversity consultancy, in my prime.
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