There’s been a lot of media attention lately on how to attract millennials into the workplace. This is especially true within the public sector space, as a big topic of conversation is how to replace older workers who will eventually retire. But the fact of the matter is that the number of older workers is rising and will continue to grow for a couple of more decades.
This begs the question – how will the aging of the workplace impact productivity?
Peter Coy, the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek, explored this topic in one of his recent articles. According to research by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, older workers – ages 65 and up – are dragging down productivity.
In an email he wrote to Coy:
“There is strong statistical evidence that the increasingly old workforce is an important factor behind the slowing in productivity growth over the past decade.”
One of the charts shared in the article shows the sharp rise of older American workers in the workplace over the next several years. Since the year 2000, this number has more than doubled and is expected to rise for a couple of more decades. This is due in large part to population aging, and an increase in the overall labor-force participation rate as more and more workers choose to put off retirement.
In addition, from World War II to the mid-2000s, labor-force productivity increased an average of 2.5% each year. However, over the past five years, labor-force productivity has drastically dropped to 0.6 percent annually.
Zandi and his research team probed deeper by analyzing government data across 11 industry groups from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, this pattern kept showing up: “Holding other factors constant, productivity was the lowest where the workforce was the oldest.”
How can this be? Are older workers truly driving down workplace productivity?
One theory is that older workers have “negative spillover effects.” Companies may be doing “less overall training or don’t buy the latest software and machinery because they don’t think their older workers will be able to learn how to use it.”
It’s important to note that this is just one of Zandi’s theories based on his research and that his theory is not meant to create or instill any negative stereotypes among older workers.
However, employers that do have negative attitudes or stereotypes towards older workers are violating anti-discrimination laws with ageism in the workplace. And for an employer to decide not to invest in new technologies because they think older workers won’t be able to learn how to use them is ridiculous.
Today’s focus is all about the user experience, and most technologies are easier to use than they were ten or fifteen years ago.
Take video conferencing for instance. Employees can now collaborate with their colleagues across the globe with a simple push of a button from their mobile device or desktop platform on an interface they are already accustomed to using. Video conferencing can also be utilized to conduct distance learning and professional development sessions for current and new employees. These sessions can then be recorded and stored in content management solutions as libraries of institutional knowledge that can be referenced and digested by new generations of employees and senior leadership.
Zandi also recommends that companies should invest in more training for older workers.
“It’s very, very important for companies to really think about training and re-education of older workers and how they can do that in a cost effective way…Some companies will figure out how and they’ll be the winners. Human resource departments need to start thinking about this more carefully.”
In the public sector, HR teams can offer time and money saving benefits to their employees by providing professional training via video conferencing. These platforms are easy to use, and the trainings can also be recorded and accessed by employees at any time.
Lastly, another recommendation that isn’t shared by Zandi is for public sector to do a better job at accommodating older generations. In recent years there has been a struggle among federal agencies to recruit talent for the most senior level positions. One major culprit is the mere fact that government jobs have lost their prestige when compared to the private sector, even among older age groups.
A Senior Executives Association study polled current, career federal executives to determine why there is such a large lack of interest in senior level positions. One data point in particular stood out – 75 percent of respondents felt that work/life balance impacted their decision to work at the highest levels of federal agencies.
This data point should serve as a wakeup call for the public sector. While the government may never be able to compete in the private sector in certain areas like compensation, providing a better work/life balance can bring back some of the prestige and increase productivity among workers.
When employees have the option to work wherever they are and can collaborate with their colleagues face-to-face through video conferencing, productivity soars, regardless of demographics. And for federal agencies to truly realize these benefits, offering flexible work arrangements with the right video conferencing technologies must go beyond Telework Week.
The aging of the workplace shouldn’t have an adverse impact on productivity. Federal agencies and state and local governments that provide more training, along with better flexible work options and video conferencing technologies, can significantly improve productivity among this growing demographic.