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Older, wiser and still valuable to employers

29 July 2010

Jane Fenwick reviews New Demographics, New Workspace. Readers who order it before 30th September can get a 20% DISCOUNT.

In the UK pensioners now total 11.5m – that’s nearly a fifth of the population. The total population of these crowded islands is set to grow but it is among the older demographic that key issues are beginning to arise. For example, some 12m Britons have not saved enough for their retirement; since 2008, there are more people of pensionable age than there are children under the age of 16; and in the next decade it is predicted that there will be more people aged over 40 than under 40.
As the authors of New Demographics, New Workspace point out, the demographics will have a ‘highly predictable impact on the workplace’ and they argue that a different type of workplace will be required to accommodate a changing workforce that is going to include older people having to work to make up inadequate or reduced pension provision.
The authors, Jeremy Myerson Jo-Anne Bichard and Alma Erlich, also noted that it is among knowledge workers that the drain into retirement is likely to most felt. As they point out, “In some highly skilled areas such as aerospace and defence, up to 40 percent of the workforce could be leaving in the next five years.” This leaves a significant skills and experience gap made worse by the fact that from 2010, the number of young people reaching working age will fall by 60,000 every year.
Whilst the post war baby-boomers are currently drifting off into retirement, it is the generation that come just behind that will surely need to work more years to earn their state pension and build enough in their private pension pots to take them through their old age. And, organisations will need them to work longer as the pool of younger knowledge workers shrinks. So, what the current older workers think about their working environment has become a key consideration for workplace strategists.
This is the central theme of this book: “If an older and wiser workforce is set to steer the future economy, bridging the talent gap in key areas of knowledge work, what are the optimum workplace design considerations for this changing workforce to succeed?”
What appears to be the authors’ starting point is that the open plan, one-size fits all, desk sharing workspace that so typified the late 20th century is not likely to suit an ageing workforce. “It is more likely to be a digitally driven workplace that is more flexible in the use of time and space, more welcoming to its workforce, more tolerant of the frailties of aging and more geared to the needs of knowledge interactions.”
The Royal College of Art has studied the workplace needs of older knowledge workers and the implications for planning and design of office environments. Entitled ‘Welcoming Workplace’, the study aimed to understand what makes a workplace more inclusive. It also examined similar issues in Japan and Australia only to discover that there are marked similarities in older people’s needs in their workplace that were not being catered for. They found that “strategies for new ways of working in the open-plan environment leave many senior employees struggling to cope.”
For example, whilst open plan enhances collaboration it impedes concentration on task that require uninterrupted and extended attention spans. Additionally, physical changes that come with aging and often they need better light to see by, they are particular about the chair they sit on and they may benefit from a power-nap in the day. Maybe some of these complaints have been there all the time, however, the researchers observed that “very productive and creative ways of working held by older employees but effective for everyone, are being discarded simply because of who is advocating them.”
A key conclusion of the Welcoming Workplace study found that three generic types of office space – settings for concentration, collaboration and contemplation - should be considered for all knowledge workers and there should be the opportunity to work in a number of different positions – seated, standing and reclining – to encourage healthier workstyles for all, rather than the current low choice, low segmentation of open plan space.
This book recognizes that there are currently barriers to rethinking the culture around older knowledge workers from IT training to institutional ageism.  It is likely to be a considerable cultural shift to ensure that working environments are redesigned to include the needs of the highly valued older workforce.
PFM is grateful to the book’s publishers, Gower Publishing Limited, for offering a 20 percent discount on purchases until 30th September.  Click here to order and be sure to use the promotion code G1DNK20 before purchasing.   

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