Older workers staying engaged

Think older workers are killing time until retirement? Not so, says a new Canadian study. Older workers aren’t just working longer, they’re also working harder to stay engaged in the workplace and leave a lasting impact. 

There’s no arguing the diversity of today’s workforce — many of which now span four generations. There could be 40 years or more age difference between entry level and senior employees. We’ve seen a lot of stories in the news about the characteristics of each generation of workers, but little academic study to help businesses make informed decisions to manage their age-diverse organizations.

Enter the Generational Career Shift Project from researchers at the University of Guelph, Dalhousie University and Carleton University. The goal: to see if each generation of workers had “significantly different career expectations, experiences, attitudes and outcomes as they have moved through their careers”, says the report.

The study polled just over 3000 Canadians who are either working, retired or looking for work, and respondents included all four generations: Matures (born before 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) and Millennials (born between 1980-1992).

The questions covered a wide variety of priorities, expectations and values — and the answers might surprise you.

Different generations, different priorities?

What do Boomers and Matures want in their careers? All four generations listed things like salary, benefits and job security among their top priorities, but that’s where the priorities begin to diverge. In the analysis of 25 priorities, the four generations differed significantly in 19 of them. Clearly, no two generations think alike.

For older workers, their career is all about the work. Boomers and Matures were the only generations to list opportunities for continuous learning among their top 10 priorities — and Matures were the only group to list challenge as well. Achievement ranked higher for the two older generations than the younger two– especially for Boomers.

And while having interesting work was the number one priority for Millennials, Matures and Boomers weren’t far behind — it was their second and third priorities, respectively.  Matures and Boomers are also more likely to rate supervisor support and feedback as being important, and they’re more concerned with being able to use their skills and abilities.

Another interesting finding: older workers aren’t as concerned about work-life balance as the younger generations. In the study, almost 40 per cent of Gen Xers and Millennials reported that work-life balance was essential — compared to about 30 per cent of Boomers and less than 20 per cent of Matures.

What about the stereotype of greedy older workers keeping jobs away from younger employees? Though important to all generations, Matures were the least interested in salary and benefits. They’re also looking out for their companies both now and in the future. Matures ranked the highest when it came to priorities like authority and influence as well as having a significant impact on the organizations of which they are a part.

In short, Matures aren’t just looking out for themselves and their nest eggs — they want to stay active and engaged in the workforce and leave a lasting legacy.

“Overall, these results demonstrate a generation that is concerned with staying relevant and continuing to be impactful in their workplaces, even as they approach retirement,” write researchers.

What about the youngest workers? They’re perhaps the most ambitious, but eager to “work hard, play hard” too. They were more likely than any other generation to report having a fun environment and social interaction with co-workers as being priorities, but they were also the most concerned with advancement. (Perhaps because they have the farthest to climb up the corporate ladder?)

While Gen Xers take the lead on work-life balance and number of hours worked, the Millennials are a close second. The report isn’t clear as to whether this finding is due to greater family responsibilities in younger workers or other factors such as a more equal division of household labour.

Older and wiser — and happier?

Ever heard the proverb that “happiness is measured in years”? While all generations reported a good level of satisfaction when it comes to their careers, it seems older workers have the edge when it comes to being happy at work. Across the board, Matures ranked the highest on indicators of career satisfaction, including income, advancement, developing new skills, their ability to balance career and personal life and finding meaning in their career. Next up were the Baby Boomers — and it goes downhill from there.  

In addition, they Boomers and Matures were more likely to strongly identify with their careers than Gen Xers and Millennials — perhaps not surprising as the latter are more concerned with work-life balance and their focus may be elsewhere.

Boomers and Matures are also more likely to view their success as the result of hard work rather than external factors like good luck or “who you know.” In fact, Boomers scored highest on “self-efficacy” — a measure that shows a strong belief in their own abilities and a “can-do” attitude. (Millennials scored the lowest in this measure, followed by Matures.)

However, before you write off Gen Xers and Millennials as malcontents, it’s important to remember the survey focused on worker’s current point of view, not how they felt about their careers in the past.

What now?

If this report leaves you with a lot of questions, remember it’s just one study exploring some aspects of a much larger, complex issue — and we’ve only looked at part of it here. Naturally, the project is ongoing and researchers have another questionnaire up and running. No doubt we’ll be seeing more research from a variety of organizations into this important topic — especially if it translates to strategies that employers can use.

What might these strategies look like? For instance, it’s plain to see that older workers want to keep their skills up to par so employers should offer them training and professional development opportunities so they can stay current. Unfortunately, denying such opportunities is a form of ageism many older workers face.

What about influence and authority? Organizations could offer older employees leadership roles and opportunities to offer guidance and feedback. They have built up decades worth of skills and experience — why not make good use of their expertise?

And with all this fuss about Millennials having high expectations and needing guidance in their careers, you can’t help but see the potential for mentorship programs.

Furthermore, it’s important for businesses to understand what’s important to all of their employees so they can avoid making assumptions about the best policies and procedures.

One thing is for certain: workers of all ages are redefining our traditional concepts of “career” and “retirement”. Some of the findings of these studies may not be surprising, but they can help businesses better understand their age-diverse workforces.

Download the full report at www.gencareershift.ca
To participate in the latest career survey, click here.