Managing the age pool

IE Focus

18 May 2005

Faced with demotivated older workers, and tempted to support their younger workforce, businesses are beginning to put in practice distinct HR policies for each age group.

What’s the best way to manage the different ages inside your company? Some HR directors answer that a specific approach to each is right. Some, though not all, have already put such measures in place. Right and left, firms are asking questions about age management.

A recent poll in France, for example, surveyed HR professionals in top firms. Nearly all - 93 percent - claimed that a “harmonious coexistence” reigned among the different generations in their companies. Two-thirds said their corporations paid “sufficient attention” to the age-management problem. Over 80 percent judged that their firm “knows how to take advantage of the competencies of each generation.”

So one may assume that HR executives are not blind to the issue. But despite their awareness, age management, according to this poll, figures only fourth on HR directors’ list of preoccupations. Managing competencies, drawing and retaining talent, managing individuals and career management all precede it.

A majority of HR executives claims to be well aware of the stakes involved in age management. Poor handling of the issue, they feel, can lead to a serious loss of competencies when workers retire. But proper age management also means not only motivating your older workers, but developing career opportunities for your in-between age groups as well. Many firms have inaugurated procedures to meet these challenges. Among the most popular are: accompanying workers at the outset of their careers (a procedure begun by 71 percent of HR directors polled), more personal attention to workers (59 percent), knowledge transfer (53 percent) and specific management of end-of-careers (32 percent).

A cultural revolution

Some HR directors are unwilling to put in place specific policies for each slice of their corporate population, fearing the resultant splintering into diverse communities and destruction of the corporate social fabric. For the moment, age management seems more of a constraint than an opportunity for many firms. It remains low on their list of priorities. Meanwhile, support for the young stays high.

Half the HR directors queried said their 30-to-40 year-old age bracket was “treated best,” and the young managers themselves tended to agree. Under-40s can hope for higher pay, greater professional evolution, training and development of their talents. After 40 is when most employer investment tends to wane. Companies will usually show gratitude for loyal service and provide job security for employees reaching 50 – no small award, but considerably less of an outlay or commitment than they are prepared to show for the younger set. This is perhaps why some 50 year-old executives begin to distance themselves from their companies - though the phenomenon can explain a certain disillusionment among 40 year-olds as well.

HR managers seem to lack the tools to deal with age management, which some warn could bring a real demographic shock to the workplace. Ideally, experts believe, the way to handle it is by managing competencies, not age levels. Yet observers admit this would entail nothing short of a cultural revolution, since salaried workers are unaccustomed to taking their own employability in hand.

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