Common Perceptions of the Ageing Workforce and Its Challenges

By Leaderonomics|18-10-2019 | 1 Min Read

The nature of the new world of work is constantly shifting. One outcome of this is that the proportion of the ageing workforce is increasing. The ageing workforce is not a new phenomenon, but a stigma to organisations having a larger ratio of older workers in the workforce.

Due to the magnitude of this workplace phenomenon, human resource (HR) practitioners need to be aware of issues and challenges related to older workers. The truth is, these older workers are increasingly starting to get recognised for their positive impact on the workforce, as well as the economic value they can bring to the organisation.

In Malaysia, older persons are defined as those who are 60 years and above. According to UNICEF Malaysia, Malaysia’s demographic change is a real concern because it is progressing at a much faster pace than many other Asian countries.

By 2020, those aged 65 and above will represent 7% of its population, and by 2045, Malaysia will become an aged nation — when 14% of its population are 65 and above.

According to a survey by the United Nations, the percentage of the elderly in Malaysia have increased 3.9% since 2000 and the population in this pool is expected to increase to 8.7% in 2025 and subsequently, 16.3% in 2050. Today’s older generation are healthier, better educated, more active, and aim to stay at work much longer than before.

A recent study by the author found that 70% of the older workers expect that they will be able to perform their job at the age of 60 and 42% think that they will continue working successfully at the age of 65.

This article provides an insight into the unique nature of the ageing workforce and proposes refining of strategies, policies and practices that promotes inclusion of the ageing workforce.

Negative stereotypes about older workers

Ageing employees are seen as a challenge to HR and managers with regard to the ‘older worker problem’. It is alleged that they bring with them a range of attitudes, personality traits and job performance deficiencies that can contribute to resisting new ways of doing things. Whilst it may be true for some older workers, it may also be a mistaken assumption.

Being aware of these negative assumptions and concerns may guide organisational leadership and can support the development of age-related interventions at the workplace. Following are some classic examples of what negative stereotypes about older workers might look like:

  • Averse to change – mature employees being inflexible and not likely to change their work habits.
  • Lack technological skills – reluctant to embrace technology, less equipped with IT knowledge and may take longer to learn new technologies.
  • Slow to do the job – physical and mental incapacity to do the job.
  • Lack work commitment – do not want to progress in their professional development and more vulnerable to work-family conflicts.
  • Less trainable to master new skill-sets – age-related inability.
  • Poor stress management – occupational self-efficacy is more negatively related to job stress among workers aged 50 and older.
  • Less willing to share job knowledge and skills – as a way of ensuring a degree of job security while blocking younger workers from advancing.
  • Less able to take direction from younger managers – older workers believe they are wiser, more experienced, reliable, stable, and skilled than younger managers.
  • Tend to be less healthy – which contributes to absenteeism. 

Positive perceptions of older workers

My study also finds that older workers are not viewed entirely negatively in the workplace; rather, the perceptions of older workers are more varied and are even positive in some cases. Following are some positive perceptions of older workers by the HR leaders (compilation of statements from the Malaysian HR Leaders’ community):

  • “The older worker is reliable and committed to good work ethic. [They] lead by example.”
  • “The older workers are loyal and concerned for the overall success of the business.”
  • “They are more likely to stay longer in an organisation than the millennial. That leads to a stable workforce and low turnover.”
  • “They perform their job with maturity due to their life and work experiences, resulting in a higher quality delivery.”
  • “The older workers are thoughtful towards working together. They champion team synergy in the workplace.”
  • “Older experienced workers are the ‘institutional memory’ (collective knowledge), which can be usefully intermixed with younger workers’ up-to-date exposure to new thinking. I call it ‘cognitive capacity synergy’.”
  • “Our older workers are technically qualified and experienced. They give credibility to their role. They can be the coach or mentor to the younger workers.”
  • “Older workers help provide greater diversity in the workplace. Indeed, they are well respected by the juniors, addressing them with a salutation Mr, Madam, Encik and Puan.”

What age-friendly initiatives can organisations take?

An increasing number of older workers are delaying their retirement plans and choosing to remain in the workforce past the traditional retirement age. The prospect of an ageing workforce has put the question of productivity as the main HR agenda in most organisations.

With all the stereotypical views of ageing workers, what age-friendly initiatives can organisations implement at the workplace?

Diversity policy and organisational culture

Diversity policies that embrace and engage an inter-generational workforce produces higher workforce utility in the workplace. Studies have shown that the productivity of both older and younger workers is higher in companies that have mixed-age work teams than in companies that do not. Age diversity within a team also heightens the performance in groups.

Research evidence to date suggests that one of the factors for successful ageing is organisational culture, which is directly influenced by the organisation’s leadership, HR practices, and the composition of the workforce.

Full involvement of key stakeholders in the development and implementation of age-friendly initiatives are beneficial to both older workers and their workplaces. An age-friendly or age-diverse culture is based on the employees in the organisation agreeing that no one should be discriminated because of age. Such commitment is necessary in creating a supportive culture that recognises and values older workers.

An organisational culture that is supportive of older workers help to foster better workplace relationships, increase employee motivation and engagement, loyalty, work commitment, job satisfaction, and improve employee wellbeing. Hence, in addition to having an age-friendly corporate identity, organisations should also have an HR management strategy that aims to fight ageism.

Three examples of HR interventions proven to have a positive effect within the organisation and help decrease ageism are:

  • Age-neutral hiring processes
  • Equal opportunities for training, promotion and reward
  • Special training courses for older workers

Flexible work arrangement and employment opportunity

Offering flexible work arrangements and employment opportunities are a popular approach to addressing the needs and preferences of older workers and thereby extending their working lives.

Flexible work arrangements make it possible for older workers to choose how much, how little, when and where they could work. It is also seen as enabling them to continue being productive and adding value to the business, whilst meeting their own needs.

HR can venture into using a range of flexible or customised work options to achieve this. Examples include flexi-time or compressed work weeks, reduced hours, partial retirement, phased retirement options, part-time or part-year work, job sharing/rotation, work from home or even project-based work.

Flexible work options can enable organisations to attract and sustain older workers, improve their work morale, and reduce employee costs. The key ingredient here is to allow older workers to enjoy a life out of work whilst still continuing to be productive in their jobs.

Read: Why Flexible Work Arrangements May Be Better For You And Your Company

Redeployment of older workers

Good practice in redeployment of older workers refers primarily to the coordination of workplace demands with the capacity of the older workers to perform the assigned job.

Redeployment is viewed as part of a preventive age management strategy geared to maintaining employability, particularly in terms of flexibility, qualification and skill enhancement, and health protection.

A number of criteria are important in rating a redeployment as successful, i.e. a reduction in the workload such as monotonous work, greater motivation, greater responsibility, the opportunity to use skills and qualifications, job security and new opportunities.

The implication of the approach is how younger workers view the organisation’s redeployment practices, in terms of their own later career development. 

Retraining and reskilling

Workers of all ages are facing organisational, technological and legislative changes, making lifelong learning of increasing importance for all workers. Organisations need to develop an encouraging and supportive environment in which older workers can feel comfortable to request further training and upskilling that they feel is necessary to enable them to continue doing their job or develop into another role.

Training and professional development opportunities may give them the boost in improving their employability (both within and outside the organisation), self-motivation and job satisfaction.

While older workers are a valuable resource in mentoring and coaching the younger workers,  some organisations practice ‘upward mentoring’ where younger colleagues upskill their older colleagues who may be less familiar with new technology and social media. This creates a win-win knowledge exchange for both the young and the old.

You may also be interested in: Predicting the Future

At present, there is a considerable discrepancy on the policies and practices by the employers on managing older workers. HR plays an important role in helping employers develop new age-friendly workspaces by efficiently integrating Industry 4.0 smart solutions at an affordable cost.

Understanding the issues surrounding demographic change and how it impacts the age distribution of workforces will provide greater insight to formulating effective age-friendly initiatives. This will improve older workers workability and in turn generate the best outcome for the employee and the business.

Dr Loo Leap Han has about 19 years of HR industry experience in manufacturing, healthcare and infrastructure construction. Currently, he is the head of group human resources in a leading infrastructure construction company. He is responsible for the people and culture strategy, and for implementing group strategic human resources initiatives. Dr Loo has also held lecturing engagements at a private institution of higher learning, Lincoln University College. Connect with him by emailing editor@leaderonomics.


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