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The global labour force is becoming more age diverse, meaning that we are increasingly more likely to find grandparents and grandchildren working together. This stems from increased longevity and a decline in birth rates; across the OECD, for example, fertility rates have fallen from 3.45 births per woman in 1960 to 1.58 in 2020. This in turn means that the old age demographic ratio—defined as the number of individuals aged 65 and over per 100 people of working age (20-64 years old)—was 22.5% in 2000, will be 33.1% for 2023 and is predicted to be 58.6% in 2075. Therefore, older workers will increasingly be pushed to delay their retirement.
Source: Family Indicators, OECD
Source: Pensions at a Glance, OECD
Similarly, retaining those workers is necessary to ensure enough human resources to keep the economy functioning. According to the Living, Learning, and Earning Longer Learning Collaborative, a joint initiative of AARP, the OECD and the WEF, raising the employment levels of workers over age 50 to match countries with the highest participation of 50+ workers will increase GDP across OECD countries by USD 10.3 trillion. It would also offset the economic loss if older workers' employment levels were to remain stagnant. Moreover, an age-diverse workplace offers many advantages for organisations, including a more sustainable pool of workers and effective synergies between more and less experienced employees. Individual workers also benefit from greater diversity.
When individuals of all ages feel included, the risk of othering among different generations diminishes due to a shared sense of belonging. This is easier to achieve when the labour force composition is not age polarised but instead includes people of different ages and at various life stages, removing the notion of an “ideal” age around a typical employee.
One of the most significant challenges is integrating a multigenerational workforce so workers of all ages can thrive. This issue is linked to ageism and negative stereotypes older and younger workers face. Stereotypes represent generalised beliefs that influence how we see people. These beliefs are not necessarily negative, yet they play down the importance of individual differences in explaining people's decisions or motivations. An example is the notion of generations. While the concept of generations captures the shared experiences of Baby-boomers, Generation X or Millennials, it neglects nuances associated with individuals' experiences, such as culture, background, age or phase of life (e.g. caring for young children, having a mortgage). When we refer to these broad categories, we stop seeing people as individuals. At an extreme, this can lead to a process of “othering”, which excludes, marginalises and dehumanises individuals based on specific descriptors such as age. In the workplace, othering can undermine multigenerational integration. It creates division and barriers, especially for those disadvantaged age groups, in the early and later stages of their working lives. Greater trust can be achieved by promoting a shared sense of belonging, where people of all ages feel valued and represented, allowing those behind the age brackets or generational labels to be seen as individuals.
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While a series of global pandemics and crises foster an increasingly divided society, different generations might have more in common than we think. Intergenerational solidarity may be the key to understanding the past and preparing for our shared future.
At an organisational level, the importance of an age-friendly environment has been mentioned in recent OECD reports. When individuals of all ages feel included, the risk of othering among different generations diminishes due to a shared sense of belonging. This is easier to achieve when the labour force composition is not age polarised but instead includes people of different ages and at various life stages, removing the notion of an “ideal” age around a typical employee. Human Resources policies and practices should also support an age-friendly culture by adopting inclusive hiring, training and retaining practices. These include:
- Flexible work conditions that are adjusted according to employees' needs, and not a one-size-fits-all model or exclusively targeted at people in a specific group, e.g. flexible working to accommodate parents rather than those who would like to achieve a different work-life balance.
- Learning and career development opportunities for employees of all ages, not only for younger or mid-career individuals, to help all workers keep their skills up to date in a highly competitive and ever-changing job market.
- Work conditions and occupational support that encourage individuals to maintain good health and reduce the risk of ageing out of the workforce before retiring.
Team-level actions are also crucial. A line manager attuned to risks and opportunities of age diversity can lead their staff purposefully to encourage trust and collaboration among employees of all generations. The level and quality of interaction and communication within the team are good indicators of cohesiveness and trust. Observing these subtle signs informs how managers can modify work practices to harness the benefits of age diversity. For instance, managers may create opportunities for mentoring or reverse mentoring or assign projects to encourage closer contact and collaboration.
Knowledge-exchange intervention helps a team to recognise everyone's unique contribution, allowing all team members to understand complementarities and overlap of skills and knowledge, and understand how to maximise the benefits of age diversity within the team collectively.
Formal interventions can support teams to realise the benefits of multiple generations. A recent study suggests that combining identity-focused and knowledge-focused training can effectively improve integration. Identity-focused training aims to diffuse stereotypes and otherness, allowing individuals to be seen as individuals and improving contact quality and belonging. Knowledge-exchange intervention helps a team to recognise everyone's unique contribution, allowing all team members to understand complementarities and overlap of skills and knowledge, and understand how to maximise the benefits of age diversity within the team collectively. After the delivery of each intervention, the researchers asked the participants to commit to implementing what they had learned through purposeful actions and modified working practices. This final stage is crucial to bridge the gap between knowing and doing, ensuring the longevity and effectiveness of the intervention in fostering an age-friendly climate at work.
An age-diverse workforce is a growing global reality, and multigenerational integration and trust are essential ingredients for societies and businesses to harness its benefits. By actively designing policies and adopting practices that encourage collaboration and belonging, organisations and leaders are fast-tracking their access to the advantages of this rich and eclectic talent pool.
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