In the build up to November’s Workplace Diversity & Equality Forum, Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive, Chartered Management Institute considers the intricacies of managing a workforce which is getting older.

There’s no escaping it – we are getting older. As much as many of us may joke about turning 21 yet again, the reality is that the country’s age profile is changing and, in just 10 years time, a third of the British workforce will be aged over 50. As a result, people will be working later into their lives. In recognition of this, back in June, the Government began a consultation on the future of the Default Retirement Age (DRA), proposing to abolish it from April next year.

Maintaining income, topping up our pensions, personal fulfilment and sustaining social connections are all important reasons why many of us want to continue working beyond the usual retirement age. Coupled with the potential abolition of the DRA, organisations need to start thinking now about the impact that an ageing workforce will have upon their business activities and how they can maximise the contribution of these older workers.

Unfortunately, the issue seems to be one that many organisations are choosing to ignore. The Managing an Ageing Workforce report, published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has revealed that only 14 per cent of managers think that their workplaces are prepared to cope with an ageing workforce. To make things worse, boardroom recognition of the issue is non-existent according to more than a third of managers.

These are worrying findings. As we get older, our needs change, and if businesses don’t address this then those aged over 50 are likely to feel undervalued and may leave their organisations. Considering that 93 per cent of mangers see value in retaining the knowledge and skills of older workers, not putting measures in place to do so will mean bad news for business. In these tough economic times, organisations need to optimise the skills and talent available to them, and this will become a lot harder if talented and experienced staff resign.

With those at the top seemingly unaware of the impending problems, the impetus needs to fall with HR managers to drive through the much needed change. In fact, the Managing an Ageing Workforce research suggests that HR departments are seen as very influential in terms of the way older workers are managed, emphasising that they must play a key part in making sure that their workplaces are well-equipped to handle the challenges that an older worker presents. If they don’t, companies will risk losing gifted staff and, in the worst case, even legal action.

So what exactly do HR managers need to do over the coming months?

Important issues to address largely fall around training and development, particularly for line managers. Almost 60 per cent of managers think that younger staff have difficulties in dealing with their older colleagues, and there is a general consensus that these line managers are reluctant to address the issue. At present, only seven per cent of organisations offer training to staff on how to manage older workers, even though almost half think it is needed. HR managers need to re-examine the development opportunities on offer and introduce more specific training around this area to get the most from older staff.

In fact, training and education will be important for staff no matter what their level. HR managers need to ensure that senior teams are not only aware of how an ageing workforce impacts upon the available talent pool, but that staff understand how this may alter recruitment processes and legal obligations. Currently, almost half of employees aren’t well-informed of their organisation’s retirement polices, and this will need to be drastically improved if staff are to support those colleagues staying with the business for longer.

HR managers must champion the cause of older workers and explain to staff at all levels just how important it is to retain talent within organisations. The Managing an Ageing Workforce report reveals that a staggering 40 per cent of us feel we have been disadvantaged in a work situation for appearing too old, and this is likely to be down to people’s misguided attitudes about older workers. Open discussion about the benefits of retaining older workers should help address these misgivings, where they exist.
Discussion alone won’t suffice, however. Practical changes at a structural level will also need to occur to accommodate older workers. It’s reasonable to expect that workers in the 50-plus age bracket are likely to have different needs compared to those just starting out. For example, it may not be practical for an older worker to commute a long distance every day. Or it might be that an older worker can lend their expertise to other parts of the business and consideration should be taken about how this can be facilitated.

Offering part-time and flexible working can really help older employees maintain a reasonable work-life balance and help them to stay in employment longer. It can also make the eventual transition to full retirement less abrupt. Unfortunately, CMI research reveals that less than half of managers feel that their organisations offer adequate flexible working for older staff, and this will need to change if these workers are to be encouraged to remain with companies beyond normal retirement age.
Introducing flexible working can have considerable benefits for organisations and, for Suffolk based Hutchinson Ports (UK) Limited, part-time arrangements have enabled them to hold on to some of their most experienced employees.

With more than 3,000 staff, Hutchinson Ports employs a large number of people in largely physical roles. As physical ability to complete a heavy workload eventually declines with age, as workers get older they can become less able to undertake certain tasks. To accommodate this, the company is currently trialling part-time hours and other flexible working practices including job redesign, to retain the knowledge of their older staff. More mature workers can now check containers or work in the firm’s warehouses, enabling them to work on past the conventional retirement age.

Hutchinson Ports is an excellent example of a firm that has successfully adapted to the needs of their older workers. I’d encourage other companies to follow their lead.
With the likely abolition of the DRA just seven months away, organisations need to get a move on. HR managers must take steps to prepare their organisations to cope with an ageing workforce or risk losing talented staff. Changes to legislation and workplace demographics will have wide ranging consequences and HR professionals must make sure the issue gets the attention it deserves at both board and line manager level.

The Managing an Ageing Workforce report can be downloaded at

About the Author:

As chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, Ruth Spellman OBE leads the drive to encourage greater focus on the high level skills needed to build UK competitiveness and productivity. She is also responsible for the Institute’s campaign to ensure 50 per cent of managers are professionally qualified by 2020.

Prior to joining the Institute in June 2008, Ruth served as the first female chief executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). She also spent 7 years as chief executive of Investors in People UK (IIPUK) where she helped raise the profile of the employer-led organisation across 27 countries. During this period she was appointed Chair of the Skills body for the Voluntary Sector, in a non-executive role and was a non-executive director of Thompsons solicitors.

As HR Director for the NSPCC, Ruth was responsible for HR strategy, change management, resourcing strategy, employee communications, external communications and media relations. Her consultancy knowledge and strength resulted in new NSPCC policies which helped them to win the coveted Employer of the Year Award in 1996.

Ruth also spent 5 years working for Coopers and Lybrand. During this time, she worked with the Boards of six of the top 100 companies and set up one of the firm’s HR branches.

In 2007 Ruth was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours List for services to Workplace Learning. She was also recently voted 14th out of the 100 most influential HR individuals in the UK.

She has three grown up children, and currently resides in Hertfordshire.