UK demographic change: Organisations must catch up fast

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The need to react to the challenge of an ageing workforce and talent shortages is urgent

The UK demographics are changing. In turn, the nature of our workplaces is shifting dramatically. This isn’t a newsflash; we have known for some time that this would occur. However, rather than rise to meet this changing societal phenomena, the majority of businesses are largely inactive, failing to take measures that could address the evolving paradigm.

Inaction can’t be blamed on the absence of expert opinion on the scale of the problem; from Ros Altmann’s report for the DWP in March 2015, to the more recent Business in the Community and Centre for Ageing Better ‘Missing Millions’ report in September 2016, analysis abounds. In early February, the government’s business champion for older workers will launch a strategy which will, again, urge action.

The need to react to this challenge has never been more urgent. While the implications of our exit from the EU remain to be seen, increased controls on migration are to be expected. According to recent estimates by the Resolution Foundation, this could force our retirement age up to 70 years by the 2030s. With the case clearly made, what we are lacking is the catalyst for decisive action.

Flexibility, a regular feature of management discussions in today’s workplaces, is often limited to the discussion of the scope of working hours and the degree of independence that workers should be given. We believe that while working practices are an essential component, flexibility must also encompass a fluid approach to lifelong skills development, and crucially, to mindsets of everyone in an organisation.

On the whole, working practices have adapted in recent years to afford a greater deal of autonomy to workers. This is particularly true when it comes to parents, to whom flexible working is routinely offered.

However, as our workplace demographics change, we need to consider the full range of circumstances for which workers may require flexibility. Those caring for their elderly relatives, for example, will increasingly require the same dispensations. By ceasing to consider our staff in terms of their age brackets and instead focusing on their needs, we can support the demographic shift. A simple framework to evaluate how jobs can be made flexible, that is fair and consistent at the same time as offering managers comfort that the outcomes will be positive, is the sensible answer.

We all have to be light on our feet as changes happen rapidly around us. Not only do training and development opportunities need to be offered to employees of every age, they also need to be taken up. Agile employees will not only be an asset to employers, they will also be more confident as employees. It is good for everyone.

We must adopt flexible mindsets that judge people by their abilities, not their hair colour. This means recognising the validity of experience, capacity to learn and ability to deliver, regardless of the form in which it presents itself. It means ceasing to see absence from the office as absence of action, instead recognising that eight hours at a desk may not be the right working pattern for some. Most importantly, it means embracing the demographic spread as an advantage rather than a challenge – recognising the range of benefits that those of different ages can bring.

With the need to act growing more urgent by the day, the time has come to make bold decisive moves, before changes in the workforce leave some businesses struggling to find the people they need.

Yvonne Sonsino is partner at Mercer and Innovation Leader Europac, and Amanda Powell-Smith is CEO at Forster Communications

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