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Age is no barrier

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It’s attitude, not age, that you should be paying attention to when canvassing for future employees
How do you really feel about employing older people? Many people in business are reluctant to employ anyone over the age of 45 and older workers are often the first to go when a company cuts back.
A small business survey conducted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia reinforced a message that has surfaced time and again in similar surveys – that business is choking because of skill shortages. This is also raising the alarm that wage pressures are building up to worrying levels.
With age comes wisdom
Julie Mills, the chief executive officer of the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association, has been encouraging her recruiter members to think positively about finding opportunities for older workers. A paper – Productivity Opportunities Posed by Skills Shortages – told recruiters to work hard to bring new attitudes to the workplace.
It told them to focus on the ‘untapped labour force’ and how, with some well-placed training, an inappropriate candidate could become a committed and highly motivated worker.
Working in a vacuum and not thinking outside the square is often one of the great mistakes of many small business operations. No greater example of this is revealed in the attitudes of employers to aged workers.
It is time for lateral thinking and it has to be done by the people who have the most to lose, namely, employers. Business history has told me that many solid businesses, based on sound financial foundations and having a good grasp of their market, actually grow their business by an amount that is far in excess of any cost of a new employee.
An old-time tale
Somewhat ironically, given the current media circus surrounding his own reluctance to announce his retirement, in 2005 Peter Costello, the then-federal treasurer, foreshadowed the possibility that Australia as a nation would have to make a radical reassessment of retirement.
While many mocked Costello’s ‘work ‘til you drop’ policy at the time, you read about it now on an almost-daily basis. Australia’s birth rate is at an all-time low, and this spells trouble for employers looking at retaining staff in the current environment. Assuming the birth rate stays as low as it is now, by the time the current generation reach their middle years, 25 per cent of the Australian population will be over the age of 65. The age-old business of supply and demand is doing employers no favours in either the present or the long term.
As social commentator Hugh Mackay recognises in Advance Australia… Where?, “if we were to go into the future with the same attitudes to retirement that we have now, the economic consequences would be catastrophic.”
You can, for the meanwhile, breathe a sigh of relief - the Baby Boomers are still powering past retirement age, setting a pattern for times to come. Sixty has been touted as “the new 50” – should save you the bother of losing what you perceive to be an extremely experienced and valued employee.
Global research firm, Mercer, released figures earlier this year in support of this. By 2012, Mercer estimates that the amount of workers in the labour force aged 55+ will increase by 14 per cent compared to a five per cent increase of workers aged 25 to 54. Despite Costello’s continued presence in parliament, this ‘work til you drop’ mentality can not be relied upon for obvious reasons – Gen Y, be it now or later, will eventually be a demographic that you can no longer avoid.
The young and the restless
Gen Y are young (obviously…), savvy, and more media-saturated than ever before. They are also highly qualified. Mackay notes that 30 years ago only 12 per cent of the same age bracket were attending a tertiary institution; today, it’s 25 per cent. According to a recent AIM salary survey, salary is also their primary motivation, usurping the much-relied on myth that ‘younger’ equates with ‘cheaper’.
Rebecca Huntley in The World According to Gen Y points out that they are a generation that is easy to misunderstand – they are often perceived as having unrealistic expectations about both ‘old fashioned hard work’ and what they should be being paid for it. Indeed, the Ipsos Mackay report, Australians At Work (2006) suggested that this generation “failed to grasp the essential concept of reciprocation between employee and employer.”
Though as Mackay warms, generalisations can be dangerous.
Gen Y is undoubtedly a generation that is highly skilled and highly literate. In my opinion employers should adopt a ‘catch them while you can’ attitude. But how do you go about this?
According to a national survey from employment group Onetest, it is simply the matter that Gen Y’s know what they want, and are not reluctant to ask for it. They are idealistic – 73 per cent saying that a company's environmental practices would affect job decisions and 75 per cent indicated that they would “respond positively” to a company with a commitment to charitable activities – and this is not necessarily a bad trait (thanks to The Garnaut Report you have to ‘clean up your act’ regardless of who you employ).
Is it age or attitude?
According to Ted Davis, former vice president of career strategy company, Right Management Consultants, the quest for youth over maturity has real dangers and could place your business at risk. He says the usual excuses that older people are more costly, less flexible, or not so ‘IT literate’ don’t necessarily hold water.
“Some older people are resistant to technology but younger people can be too. Many older people actually embrace technology. It’s not age that matters, it’s attitude.
“When times are tough and businesses want to cut costs, sometimes it’s cheaper to cut experienced staff who earn more money,” says Davis.
Davis says you need to look at not just the direct cost.
Ultimately, it is not so much about cost, but a person’s value and relevance to the organisation.
 “In general terms the big danger for businesses as their more experienced staff move on or perhaps get retrenched, is the loss of corporate memory, of experience – the glue and the organisation’s stability,” he says.
Another important factor is the mentoring of younger staff. That is often an intangible value that older workers bring to your workplace. Your business should look at the age structures to help determine what your future staffing needs are going to be.

It’s not age that matters but what underlies the individual in terms of what they offer employers as a total package. 

Published on: Friday, September 26, 2008

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