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What is the Age-Identity of your Organization?

assessing and engaging changing age demographics in 2010

14 January 2010—Those who have followed our explorations in this series may notice that the same three interrelated themes keep appearing. First, there is the issue of the “objective” quality of changing age demographics. The coming transformations, spearheaded by an avalanche of baby boomer retirees, will impact organizations in different ways – hence the importance of preparedness – but demographic alterations will be felt by all. Secondly, we have posited that these objective changes are overlapping with, and are sometimes influencing, the subjective experiences of workers. In other words, workers’ perceptions and needs are also changing within these demographic currents; thus, workplace environment and quality of employment issues demand an age-conscious strategy. Finally, along with other researchers, we believe that we are entering a period when organizations themselves are especially active in reassessing their priorities and organizational philosophies. While economic pressures and issues of necessity are one context for these reassessments, we do not believe that it is all negative talk. On the contrary, we see much attention being paid to the potentials of a multigenerational workforce. Furthermore, we believe that we may be at the edge of an “engageable moment”1  – an opportunity for organizations to address fundamental questions about how they want to function and deal with the issues this unprecedented four-generation workforce have raised within a changing human resources landscape. It is in this spirit that we present some of the ideas and concerns we heard during the seminar, and offer ways for organizations to understand and address their “age-identity” as we head into a new decade of workforce transformations.

Age Diversity and Multigenerationality

Our inquiries over the course of the last few months have told us that age has an ambiguous status within organizations. Is age mainly a matter of workforce planning? Recruiting? Perhaps it belongs within diversity initiatives, or talent management? Not knowing the answer to these questions can inhibit an organization’s responsiveness. Considering the larger social climate, there may be some tip-toeing around age, which is a short-sighted approach. Age is indeed a diversity issue, but one that connects to the basic foundations of organizational efficiency and success.

Our seminar participants echoed this sentiment, refusing to treat age as a hot potato. Rather, the participants wanted to emphasize that organizations are now encountering a wide array of age-related circumstances. One of the main themes that we took from the event is that while some organizations have to directly confront the situations of older workers and their aging workforce generally, multigenerational issues that addressed and cut across different employee age groups are more often discussed. For example, in a written commentary, one seminar participant emphasized the limitations of discussing the chronological aging of workers in isolation from other areas of change. Rather, she saw age diversity as an encompassing concern: “If we’re talking about older workers, it’s often a conversation about retirement or phased retirement, rather than about succession or workforce planning utilizing older workers as well as Gen X and Y.”

Several of the organizations represented at the seminar had relatively large numbers of younger workers, and therefore felt that the challenges of younger workers in organizations needed more attention. However, the priorities of younger employees were not seen in isolation:

“For us, Gen Y has changed the conversation. Talking about age is appropriate now. It has become more comfortable because younger workers are so busy shaping their own careers. All of this activity within a multigenerational workforce has, for us, made knowledge-sharing a priority.”

Another representative from a large technology company discussed the relative youthfulness of that company’s workforce and emphasized the effectiveness of cross-generational working groups for leadership development and knowledge retention.

Overall, this strong multigenerational perspective is derived from the unique situations that organizations are encountering. Old modes of understanding and managing age are seen as insufficient in dealing with new workplace realities: instead of simply undertaking retirement planning, we need to understand older workers’ career intentions; instead of addressing the needs of different age groups in isolation, we need to get these differing groups to transact with each other; rather than making assumptions about workers at different career stages, we would benefit from hearing directly from them and working from the ground up.

Issues such as workplace flexibility were especially salient to participants, many of whom emphasized the importance of flex-time opportunities, and yet did not specifically refer to this as an “older worker issue.” The representative from the technology corporation stated that about 40% of employees in his division work at least some hours from home, and that the opportunity “speaks to all ages.”

All of this suggests that organizations are feeling “age-pressure” in a wide variety of ways and to differing degrees, and that their responses will be similarly distinct. Still, we believe that the influx of Boomer retirement will be a discernable force on its own, and organizations need to have awareness about this specific dimension of demographic change.2  At the same time, we were encouraged by the multigenerational thinking articulated during the seminar. We may look back and see that retirement crunch was a spark that ignited a new flurry of diverse age-centered initiatives in all sectors of organization and business planning. We certainly hope this will be the case.

Workforce Planning

Workforce planning is closely connected to the issues organizations ultimately need to be considering when attempting to learn about their own age-centered challenges. The obvious starting point made clear in our previous articles, is that planning for workforce changes is not the issue, but rather, how best to prepare for those changes. We say this realizing that most organizations, even those experiencing age-related challenges, have not examined their workforce demographics to a significant degree.3  The recent Talent Management Study4  conducted by The Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that 63% of organizations who experience “age-pressure” have either analyzed their workforce “to a limited extent” or “not at all” (See Figure 1).

  

Predictably, our seminar participants saw age related planning as a business imperative, especially in (and not in spite of) challenging economic times. Deborah Russell, the Director of Workforce Issues at AARP, provided the following written comment:

Changing age demographics are a business imperative. The recession has perhaps amplified the need for talent management to be addressed as a business imperative. Now that companies have become more “lean,” many have realized that they are able to get by with fewer employees by shifting resources, skills, talent, etc. … More companies will have to incorporate talent management into their workforce strategies, which expands the responsibility to other decision makers within an organization.

We will not repeat the overview of how the economic downturn has affected the organizational responses to workforce transformations, which can be found in the third article. However, it is clear that the recession has influenced and become intertwined with the overall management of labor force changes. The Talent Management Study5  has provided a useful way to break down the age-economy interface, and it has also provided a way for organizations to place themselves within the context of the specific pressures experienced by other organizations. The research from the Study created four “pressure groups:” age pressured, economically pressured, age/economically pressured, and lower pressured. The study discussed key areas of planning for organizations that belonged in each of the four groups, such as workforce supply, knowledge gaps, and so on. Using the Talent Management Study as a guide, we have outlined the areas that we see as particularly vital for organizations who wish to explore and manage their age demographic status.

Defining an Organization’s Age-Identity

Based on our series of articles and the seminar discussion, we have identified the following interconnected areas, which will inform the tool that follows:

  • Retirement
  • Labor Force Gaps and Shortages
  • Knowledge Management
  • Quality of Employment

Retirement

As previously stated, whatever age-implicated dilemmas organizations are facing, retirement trends are surely connected to most of them. It seems clear at this point that economic trends are complicating the retirement picture. Boomer retirement patterns are a reality, and yet older workers are often staying on longer.6  While older workers have been motivated by opportunities for meaningful work, shrinking 401(k)s have made their motives somewhat more complicated – although there is little reason to question the level of engagement of older workers, which remains high.7  It’s not easy to accurately project retirement numbers, and it’s even more challenging to understand how a mixed older worker situation is reverberating within the workforce at large. Effective retirement planning depends on the ability not only to predict, but also on – as our seminar discussion addressed – a grounded, “micro” understanding of workers’ career intentions.

  • Has your organization identified the areas and occupations in which retirement will be especially consequential?
  • Has your organization understood how employee priorities and career intentions (of all age groups) align with your organization’s goals?
  • Has your organization explored how phased retirement and other programs for older workers can potentially ease labor force gaps or shortages?

Labor Force Gaps and Shortages

Extrapolating from this last question, we can be sure that labor force imbalances and other HR challenges will accompany the general aging of the workforce. We mentioned how some of the organizations attending our seminar had a disproportionate number of younger workers, at least in some departments, but we also saw a general trend towards a shortage of skilled labor entering the labor market. Here, organizations are called upon to forecast what areas might be at high risk for various gaps and discontinuities. Strategies for the recruitment and the retention of workers, especially those 50+, take on new importance, especially if economic circumstances put limitations on training and development.8 

  • Has your organization projected where internal talent gaps and shortages are most likely to emerge?
  • Has your organization considered ways to recruit skilled workers in areas of potential shortage?
  • Has your organization organized other strategies to prepare for labor shortages, such as job design, project-based employment, and flexible work situations?

Knowledge Management: The loss of specialized knowledge and experience is a central challenge for organizations encountering unpredictable workforce scenarios. Retirement surges signal an obvious need for knowledge retention in the form of succession planning, but there is also the issue of facilitating continuous communication across groups with varying degrees of knowledge and expertise. Anticipating potential knowledge loss can also prompt organizations to identify key leaders and knowledge holders, and, again, to have those employees share their knowledge with more inexperienced employees.9  In these ways, knowledge management can be an enriching experience for employees who are evaluating their own skills and career goals. While taking care of organizational needs, this work simultaneously cultivates the strengths of a multigenerational workplace.

  • Has your organization created succession programs that are informed by the need for knowledge retention?
  • Has your organization recognized key knowledge holders who can bridge employee groups and divides?
  • Has your organization developed age-related programs to assist in knowledge retention, such as employee resource groups or mentoring programs?

Quality of Employment

Workers’ needs and priorities are undergoing new alterations within changing economic circumstances and workplace cultures. Therefore, demographic statistics about age need to be understood alongside the subjective experiences of workers within different ages and career stages. With older workers on the rise, issues of quality of employment demand reassessment. The seminar gave us the indication than many organizations, even those who do not presently experience age-related pressures, have at least begun to see the benefits of developing some alternative work and organizational arrangements to better suit the priorities of their employees.10  We have also seen that health and wellness programs are flourishing in many organizations, even those under significant financial pressures.11 

  • Has your organization sought to match employee priorities with business/organizational goals?
  • Has your organization researched the costs and benefits of flexible working arrangements?
  • Has your organization addressed career development and wellness concerns among the workforce so to encourage maximum levels of employee engagement?

There are certainly many other areas and questions that may need to be addressed depending on the organization, and this is precisely the point: If demographic shifts have made some organizations more aware of age imbalances within their workforce, there is no predictable path through which age becomes an organizational planning priority, if it becomes one at all.

We believe that encouraging “age-awareness” encourages age responsiveness. Yet, there is a crucial middle step that is often overlooked: organizations need to go through the upfront, challenging work of finding out how they want to function and deal with the issues this unprecedented four-generation workforce have raised in the hodge-podge of age diversity, namely, finding their “age-identity.” We understand age-identity as a mutable thing, a dialogue that is always constructive through the ebb and flow of both demographic and organizational changes.

Our seminar participants reiterated a multigenerational focus on the meaning of changing age demographics. They emphasized how pressure can come from different age segments and from various predicaments in the workforce. We might only add that it can also be difficult to recognize “age pressure” itself if the contexts of demographic and organizational change are not sufficiently understood at the outset. As one participant put it, without adequate resources for dealing with these issues, everything can feel somewhat “age exhausting.”

The following tool can assist organizations in identifying their areas of greatest need and assist them in a workforce planning process that is focused on developing relevant age responsive strategies for a multigenerational workplace.

Authors, Fee, Dwight, Ph.D.; Lynch, Kathy; and Woodnick, Pamela

This article is the fourth in a four part series discussing, “Changing Age Demographics: A Business Imperative or HR Distraction.”    

border1 Watson Wyatt.(2009).  Watson Wyatt's WorkUSA survey identifies steps to keep employees engaged, productive in a downturn. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from http://www.watsonwyatt.com/news/press.asp?ID=20559.    

2 Although the call did not provide evidence of this, we have wondered if a “multigenerational” stance could, in some instances, become a “safe” way to discuss age without developing age-specific strategies. We simply are concerned with the potential of a multigenerational dialogue becoming empty rhetoric within pressured organizations. Going forward, could multigenerationality become the new age identity that everyone embraces but few invoke with strategic purpose? Whatever the case, we hope our tool helps organizations become very specific and grounded in their age-centered planning.    

3Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Smyer, M. A., Matz-Costa, C., & Kane, K. (2007). The national study report: Phase II of the national study of business strategy and workforce development (Research Highlight No. 04). Chestnut Hill, MA: The Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/RH04_NationalStudy.pdf.    

4 Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Sweet, S., Lynch, K., Whalley, E. (2009).   Talent Management Study: The Pressures of Talent Management . Management (Issue Brief No. 23). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/IB23_TalentMangmntStudy.pdf.    

5 Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Sweet, S., Lynch, K., Whalley, E. (2009).   Talent Management Study: The Pressures of Talent Management . Management (Issue Brief No. 23). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/IB23_TalentMangmntStudy.pdf.    

6 Watson Wyatt Worldwide. (2009). Effect of the economic crisis on employee attitudes toward retirement - part II: Retirement Timing. Washington, DC: Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.watsonwyatt.com/research/deliverpdf.asp?catalog=WT-2009-12911&id=x.pdf.   

7Matz-Costa, C., Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Bensen, E., and Lynch, K. (2009). The difference a downturn can make: Assessing the early effects of the economic crisis on the employment experiences of workers(Issue Brief No. 22). Chestnutt Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieve from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/IB22_AgeGen_Downturn.pdf.   

8 Towers Perrin. (2005). The business case for workers age 50+: Planning for tomorrow’s talent needs in today’s competitive environment. Washington, DC: AARP. Retrieved from http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/econ/workers_fifty_plus.pdf.    

9 Strack, R., Baier, J., Fahlander, A. (2008). Managing demographic risk. Harvard Business Review, February.   

10 Galinksky, E., Bond, J.T. (2009). The impact of the recession on employers.  New York: Families and Work Institute. Retrieve from http://familiesandwork.org/site/research/reports/Recession2009.pdf.   

11 Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Companies continue to add wellness programs, Watson Wyatt/National business group on health survey finds. Retrieved May 4, 2009, from http://www.watsonwyatt.com/us/news/press.asp?ID=20961.