Why age should matter to HR

12 Jul 2018 By Simon Whitehead

Simon Whitehead asks how employers can best cater for an ageing workforce and ease intergenerational conflict among staff

The UK workforce’s changing age profile is starting to impact on our labour markets. A third of UK workers will be over 50 by 2020 and a third of people born today will live to be 100.

Increased life expectancy and the fact that people are working for longer is changing how all age groups want to live and work. Gone are the days of school, a job for life, then retirement. If millennials do want more work-life balance now, perhaps it’s because they can see that their scales are weighted very differently than those of Generation X, or baby boomers. 

And while generalisations based on generations may not solve any problems by themselves, recognising now that we might soon have four, if not five, generations within the same workforce – and planning for this – is a must. Intergenerational working and an ageing workforce will bring unique challenges for everyone. Planning for older age isn’t just personal, it’s good business too.

Benefits for business

Businesses in certain sectors are already feeling the impact of immigration curbs. Add the fact that over the next decade there will be fewer people ages 16 to 49 (June ONS figures show declining numbers of 16 to 24-year-olds) and the benefit of attracting and retaining older workers starts to become apparent. Without strategic HR management, there’s a real risk that businesses will be left with a gap they cannot fill. 

Avoiding a mass exodus

It’s not just about the available pool of workers. Auditing the age of your workforce and heading off a potential generational exodus by shrewd planning, ‘part-tirement’ or flexible working patterns could help to save your business’s day too. One commentator warned of the audible sound as all knowledge was drained out of an organisation in the wake of a ‘silver tsunami’. If skilled, experienced workers are a valuable resource, then planning how to keep them should be part of your HR strategy.

Pay structures where pay automatically increases with longevity (and therefore, by implication with age), may need to be carefully reconsidered with an eye on the absence of a set retirement age and the potential for age discrimination claims.


Recognising what motivates, and what pressures are felt by, different generations (and by specific individuals) is a first step in managing and retaining them. Carefully done, helping the generations to understand each other may ease some of the intergenerational conflict.

Younger people, for example, are statistically disproportionately affected by the financial crisis. Graduates may be burdened with student debt and it’s sobering to consider that it now takes approximately 22 years to save for a house (up from three years in the mid-90s). Generation X – the latchkey kids – may feel the double caring pressures of elderly parents and young children.

Encouraging intergenerational mentoring and coaching may help your workforce to gel, and to encourage knowledge-sharing in both directions. 

Considering flexible working arrangements and different work patterns may also enable those across all generations to find that elusive work-life balance.

Starting conversations around working arrangements that make workers’ lives better and ‘exploring options’ may be mutually beneficial. Thinking about things as simple as whether a worker needs to sit or stand, and meeting workers’ preferences, where possible, may help to increase productivity.

Investing in career development across the organisation and training key staff to recognise casual ageism and to prevent an unconscious bias that treats those over 50 as if they are on a downwards slope may help your organisation to keep the respect and experience of its older workers, and in turn, encourage younger workers that your business is worth investing in.

If death and taxes are the only certainty in life, ageing is the next sure thing. Combat age barriers, promote age diversity, and promote good age management in your organisation. In another 20 years, if you’re still there, you might be very glad that you did.

Simon Whitehead is founding partner and employment specialist at HRC Law

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