Over the past year, I have been part of an incredible research initiative exploring attitudes towards older Australian workers. My time in research has brought to light a very pressing workforce issue that I believe warrants greater attention. And as I begin a new career adventure in consulting next month, I am looking forward to better understanding employer attitudes towards the ageing workforce. Along the way, I also look forward for opportunities to invite conversation with clients and organisational stakeholders regarding this important issue.
The simple fact is that the ageing workforce should be treated as more of an urgent issue than it currently is.
Today’s workforce is increasingly becoming more age-diverse – characterised by a growing proportion of older workers, who also happen to be working longer than ever before. As a result, organisations will have little choice but to put greater effort into recruiting, developing and engaging the older workforce. More than ever, there will be greater demands placed on organisations to more appropriately recognise and address the needs of their older workers. This impending workforce issue that is one that will require a strategic and considered approach. As workforces age around the world, the impact of organisational and HR practices on older worker outcomes should not be understated.
So, in light of my departure from my research role at CWL, I have penned a few short observations from my time in ageing workforce research:
AGE DIVERSITY NEEDS TO BE EMBRACED LIKE OTHER FORMS OF DIVERSITY
“Discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any other aspect of ourselves that we cannot change.”
It has been great to see diversity and inclusion become a bigger priority for many organisations in recent years. However, age diversity still receives relatively little attention relative to the other major “isms” (i.e., sexism, racism etc.). This is despite age being a very salient attribute in the workplace that can lead to discriminatory practices and behaviours towards older workers. One only has to look at the recent National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination in 2016 by the Australian Human Rights Commission to see the many pervasive barriers that many older Australians face in gaining and sustaining employment.
Diversity and inclusion must extend to include initiatives that recognise and celebrate the unique contribution of employees of all different age groups. This is particularly critical as our workforce becomes increasingly more intergenerational than ever before. The ability to work together effectively and cohesively will become critical in light of modern workforce challenges.
ORGANISATIONS SHOULD CONSIDER TAILORING HR-POLICIES FOR THEIR MATURE-AGE WORKFORCE
HR policies should be re-designed to better meet the needs of older workers. These include strategies such as: flexible/alternative working arrangements (e.g., reduced workweek, job sharing, working from home, eldercare provisions etc.); training and development (e.g., up-skilling to update current skills or acquire relevant new skills, making adjustments for different learning styles etc.); and adjusting recruitment processes to ensure they are not biased against older job seekers.
Policies designed to be more appealing and accommodating of the mature-age workforce can enhance older worker experience in the workplace, leading to greater engagement and commitment to remain in work. Having practices that are tailored for the differing needs of older workers has also been shown to increase perceived organisational support, which is related to increased job satisfaction and turnover. This is congruent with the bottom-line – when a large proportion of your workforce is older, it pays to develop HR practices that will enhance employee performance and overall well-being.
STEREOTYPES AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT OLDER WORKERS NEED CORRECTING
Stereotypes can lead to a view that older workers are all homogeneous, or ‘similar’ in their characteristics. Common stereotypes about older workers include: a lowered performance output, resistance to change, inflexibility in working styles relative to their peers, and incompetence with new technologies. Yet, much research has shown that these many of these myths are largely unfounded. Despite this, biases and ageist attitudes towards older workers can result in discriminatory behaviours can have a devastating impact across all stages of the employment cycle, from selection, development and promotion decisions, to performance appraisal. Clearly, we need to be able to separate myth from fact, and not allow ourselves to judge others based on stereotypes.
As a first step, organisations should consider employing age-diversity awareness training programs for leaders and managers. It is important to educate and raise awareness about different ways to motivate the older workforce and how to avoid bias in decision making processes. Additionally, it is also important to learn how to give appropriate recognition and feedback. At the individual level, employees should re-frame diversity to include age. Furthermore, they should be encouraged to be conscious of the way biases and stereotypes might affect interactions with team members, clients, customers and other stakeholders.
The ageing research at CWL is still ongoing. You can stay up to date with our findings and other research output produced by the Centre by following us on LinkedIn or on our Twitter account (@leadingatwork). As for me, I aim to continue bringing greater attention to this under-represented workforce issue. The more people I can talk to, professional or otherwise, the more I can make people aware of its importance.
One thing is for sure: if nothing changes, organisations will be at risk of significantly failing to respond to an imminent societal challenge.
Organisations must improve on current practices in order to harness the potential of their older workforce. I look forward to seeing organisations take a more proactive stance in promoting age diversity in their workplaces.
“The manager of tomorrow will not be able to remain an intuitive manager. [S]he will have to master system and method, will have to conceive patterns and synthesize elements into wholes, will have to formulate general concepts and to apply general principles. Otherwise [s]he will fail” (p. 374).
In today’s environment of rapid change, advanced technology, and big data, the above quote is certainly worth consideration. This is all the more reason to be amazed by the fact that it was written way back in 1954 by Peter Drucker, one of the most influential figures in the study and practice of management.
Back to Basics: The Practice of Management
The Study of Australian Leadership (SAL) suggests — among other things — that we should pay more attention to the fundamentals of management. This is precisely what Drucker does in his seminal book, The Practice of Management – a book that I would recommend to aspiring and experienced leaders alike.
Some people would argue that speaking of things like management-by-objectives is “so 80s and 90s”, and that the Centre for Workplace Leadership really ought to catch up on the latest management fads—er—concepts (?).
I would first reply that management-by-objectives is not “so 80s or 90s”; it’s actually “so 50s” (considering the 1954 publication of The Practice of Management), but could probably be dated earlier. However, like sliced bread, the wheel, and mathematics, many old inventions are worth keeping around.
Who cares about “Management” when there’s so much out there on “Leadership”?
Drucker begins the book with definitions, but don’t skip these bits. Anyone who tends to throw away literature relating to “management” in favour of literature (or listicles) relating to “leadership” are doing themselves a great disservice. The author is explicit in stating that the manager should not simply mean “the boss” or someone who “does his [or her] work by getting other people to do theirs” (p. 6).* Rather, he sees management as a necessary function in the organisation – encompassing much of what we “modern folks” would consider to be leadership. This is actually consistent with many modern views on how management and leadership are related, as explained in our SAL report (chapters 2 and 6).
Drucker then discusses what it means to manage a business, manage other managers, and manage workers and their work itself. However, what particularly resonates with me right now is a discussion that comes toward the end of the book, around “The Manager of Tomorrow”. So I’ll focus on that…
“The Manager of Tomorrow”
According to Drucker (pages 372-373), the manager of tomorrow will have seven new tasks…**
Manage by objectives.
Take more risks and consider the long term, and this will need to occur even at lower levels of the organisation.
Make strategic decisions.
Build an integrated team of people who can monitor their own performance and targets.
Communicate information quickly and clearly to motivate others to participate responsibly.
See the business as a whole and understand how one’s own function is integrated. (Drucker is explicit in pointing out that it is no longer enough to simply know about more than one business function; managers must be much more holistic and proactive in their approach.)
Similar to the above point, be able to relate one’s product and industry to the larger environment, understanding how it might play a role in or be affected by things happening in other markets and countries. (Again, Drucker is explicit in acknowledging that many people know multiple products or industries, but that what will be required of future managers is substantially more than this.)
To equip the manager of tomorrow to complete these tasks, Drucker presents a few ideas about the education of future leaders (which, by the way, he suggests can begin at any stage of one’s life).
What the Manager of Tomorrow Needs to Know
Drucker suggests that the manager of tomorrow will start with an educational foundation that is even more fundamental than things like managing by objectives. He emphasises the importance of “…the writing of poetry and of short stories. For these two courses teach a [wo]man how to express himself [or herself], teach him [or her] words and their meaning and, above all, give him [or her] practice in writing” (p. 375).
The author also emphasises the importance of being able to think logically and orally defend one’s arguments, as one might do in defending a thesis at the end of a course of study, but on a continuing basis. Drucker then points out the importance of a “basic understanding of science and scientific method” (p. 375).
Finally, the author notes the importance of obtaining basic knowledge of history, political science, and economics to help understand the environment and the place one’s work, product, and/or industry has in that environment.
This prescription of knowledge areas is deceptively basic. No single area comes across as particularly difficult to master. However, the important question is how many managers cover them all – how to express themselves; how to write; how to build and defend arguments; how to conduct scientific enquiry; and what is going on in history, politics, and the economy.
Drucker explains that this type of knowledge acquisition can be integrated into virtually any area of training — from business to engineering. He notes that it may be accomplished through formal programs or on one’s own. However, I would argue that many people (myself included) lack the discipline to do the latter, especially considering the prevalence of distractions like Facebook, Twitter, and superhero movies in today’s world.
To finish up, I recommend that those interested in management and/or leadership (re-)visit the basics, perhaps even starting with Drucker’s book.
And for further reading about the state of leadership in Australia, take a look at the SAL report. It discusses several topics relating to what I’ve discussed here, including a profile of the educational qualifications of leaders (chapters 5 and 9), their mastery of management and human resource management fundamentals (chapters 6 and 7), and their use of leadership development programs (chapter 10).
Drucker, P. F. (1954). The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
* As a diversity management scholar, I’ll go ahead and warn the reader of Drucker’s exclusive use of male pronouns; it’s 1954, remember? But I tried to fix them in the quotes, as you can see by the bracketed text.
** Okay, I’ll acknowledge that this was probably the first good leadership listicle ever published, but I’ll also note that it was probably the last good leadership listicle ever published. (Stop sharing listicles, please.) Also, I’ll just remind you again that this was written in 1954! Fun idea: show those 7 points to your colleagues and ask them to guess where you got it from and when it was published. If they guess it was a recent Buzzfeed article, you should – at the very least – disown them (for other ideas on what to do with such colleagues, see Game of Thrones).