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The Greying Talent Pool: Why you might be overlooking a valuable source of leadership talent

Managing an age diverse workforce. In a world of continuing labor and skills shortages, ignoring the older talent in your organization could be a waste of critical leadership potential and a loss to economic recovery.

The recent emphasis on creating truly diverse workforces and leadership teams has seen action on underrepresented groups like women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT+ community. But when it comes to offering opportunity for all, in a fair manner, one group is frequently overlooked: the over-50s. And companies disregard this group at their peril.

“The sad fact is that too many workers aged over 50 are routinely being overlooked for promotion, despite possessing the essential knowledge and experience needed to fill the leadership skills gap”

states Christiane Pietsch, Partner and Head of the Financial Services Practice in Germany.

Companies stand to waste the wealth of knowledge and critical experience that this talent pool holds if they fail to do more to engage these professionals.

Growing (and greying) talent pool

It’s a talent pool that is certainly growing: the greying of the workforce is a very real trend. As is the aging of our whole society.

With longer life expectancies and advances in health care, the employment rates of older workers has risen tremendously over the past decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that by the year 2028, 25% of the workforce will be workers over the age of 55.

We need to shift the mindset and change the conversation around aging. We need to appreciate the value and benefits of the older workforce, and recognise their experience is a competitive advantage for employers. 

It might be thought that laws against age discrimination would improve the hiring of older workers, but there is little evidence in favor of this. The age discrimination laws seem to have improved the position of those employed, but not helped those mature workers seeking work. Viewed this way, the laws may reinforce the tendency of employers to retain older workers, but not hire them.

But once hired, too many employers are stunting progression paths for over 50s, losing out on the vital skills and experience offered by older employees.

There are arguments that your 50+ years are the best time to lead

Research from the World Economic Forum shows a more age-diverse workforce delivers better performance overall: a survey of employers revealed 87% thought the over-50s were “a valuable resource for training and mentoring” and 86% “an important source of institutional knowledge.”

So, how does an over-50 have a stronger ability to lead? For one thing, a leader at that age can be better at solving interpersonal or abstract problems. They tend to value the future just as much, if not more, than the present. Also, over-50s tend to have developed the ability to regulate emotions and cope with negative feelings. According to a study by AARP and AON Hewitt, the 50+ segment of the workforce also continues to be the most engaged age cohort across all generations. They demonstrate the emotional and intellectual involvement that motivates employees to do their best work and contribute to an organizations’ success. All very useful in a leader.

They are not lacking in entrepreneurial spirit either: US statistics from MIT and Northwestern University indicate that a 50-year-old entrepreneur was 1.8 times more likely to achieve high growth than a company founder in their 30s.

Stable, but not stuck in their ways

Older people do bring a certain stability to their roles. They are not constantly looking for the next big opportunity to climb the ladder like younger workers. They tend to know exactly what they want to do and are focused on getting the work done.

However, this does not mean they are complacent and lack ambition, and are wrongly assumed to lack the desire to learn and progress into more senior positions. In fact, they are just as keen, if not keener, than their younger colleagues to grow and develop.

Research from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics highlighted how older people are just as capable of learning new things as their younger peers. The study found that those who are close to retiring are just as interested in learning new skills as their younger peers, even if there is no strict need for them to do so.

Treated properly, loyalty is also a factor.

Since older workers are typically more satisfied with their jobs, they also tend to stay longer. This saves companies the countless hours and financial resources screening, hiring and training new employees only to find them leaving shortly after for 'greener pastures' in the quest to ascend the career ladder. 

Having been working in a particular industry or sector for many years, over-50s also have something extremely valuable: the professional networks that they have built up over the years of their career, something that can be leveraged to competitive advantage in favor of their employer.

Dung Hoang, Principal and member of the Automotive and Industrial Practices in Munich, observes:

“Those years of experience and rich bank of knowledge has other positive outcomes: helping to develop and mentor more junior employees. They can also play a role in fostering collaboration, cohesion and resiliency within their teams.”

The challenge of multi-generation cultures

There is a challenge though, in maintaining an age-diverse workforce with a leadership to match. How do you create a culture that allows multi-generations to thrive cohesively together?

Prejudices must be overcome on both sides, like the young leaders who regard older leaders as too conservative and stuck in their ways. Those critical perceptions are related to a sense amongst younger leaders that they’re at their peak, their younger colleagues have much to learn, and their older colleagues are somehow past their best.

On the other hand, the older leaders regard younger leaders with some prejudice too, as lacking real experience, commitment and not respecting senior leaders.

A healthy and productive culture that bridges those generation gaps is one where everyone is able to buy into the organizations’ purpose. Of course, it isn’t easy to achieve that. Many leaders have failed, both young and old.

Think about talent differently

To create a culture that gets the most out of all the leadership potential in your organization, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Have you fully examined (and tackled) just how big a reality ageism is in your organization? Not just with regard to leadership, but also in areas like pay, bonuses, performance, promotion and recruitment statistics.

You certainly need to analyze your age profile data to identify those potential leaders who might have been ignored. And ensure that learning and reskilling are appropriate for all, and for the jobs of the future.

Other questions you should ask,

  • Do your people and career strategies truly embrace experienced colleagues and their aspirations?
  • What impact is your organizations’ retirement plan having?
  • Have you got an effective flexible-working strategy that can support those with caregiver responsibilities?

Older employees could just be the answer to some of your leadership needs and a major company asset. And the good news is, they’re already on your payroll, and as we’ve indicated, eager to progress.

If you want to discuss these issues and how they affect your organization, or perhaps want advice on your career trajectory, please get in touch.

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