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Out With the Old

Richard Seel

 Published in The Guardian 23rd March 1997.

{To download a Word version, click here.}

They wanted to close our branch libraries recently, but the outcry led to a change of heart. Instead, they decided to cut opening hours and reduce staffing levels. I overheard two librarians talking: "They’re going to offer early retirement to see if they can get rid of enough people that way." Of course! The ideal solution—no-one is forced to leave and the pension fund can help take the strain. But is it really so ideal?

We hear a lot of talk about the Learning Organisation nowadays but many businesses are in the process of becoming Forgetting Organisations as they shed their older workers. Downsizing, rightsizing and restructuring often target the older worker or offer attractive early retirement packages leaving the average age of the workforce significantly younger.

There are a number of results of this process. Firstly, knowledge is often simply lost. Those leaving are not always asked to record what they know of processes and procedures. When the time comes to produce the annual report or revise the maintenance schedule no-one knows exactly how to do it and so it is necessary to reinvent the wheel.

In theory companies could get round this by ensuring an effective transfer of knowledge and experience before the layoffs take place. In practice it is often difficult to make such learning explicit and it is unlikely that the right climate for dispassionate review exists within the firm undergoing traumatic change. And even if it did, we must wonder about the degree of co-operation to be had from those who are being forcibly ejected.

Of course, the same considerations can apply when younger employees leave, but there is one consequence of the loss of older workers which is distinctive. Because of their experience, the older workers have a different kind of knowledge from the newer. They may not understand process or procedure better, but they almost certainly have a better understanding of the reasons underlying them.

The older worker provides the glue of connectivity with the corporate past which helps to build the sense of community within the organisation. Without it there is a danger of what has been described as corporate Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the knowledge is still there but the connections and the sense are missing. People know what but not why.

Finally the very fact of long service brings a greater depth to discussion. Anyone with twenty or more years service in a firm will have seen the circulation of ideas and fads. While it may be boring to have someone say, "Oh that won’t work! I remember when we tried it fifteen years ago and it didn’t work then." there is the potential for exploring with them their recollections and helping to avoid yesterday’s wrong decisions. To re-write Santayana, "If we do not learn from the mistakes of history we are doomed to repeat them."

So why do organisations want to get rid of their older workers? I suspect that we can learn a lot by looking at this as a diversity issue. Older workers work and behave differently from their younger colleagues. Consider what happens in many tribal societies. It is the young and middle aged men who hunt or herd or plant. The older men tend to sit around and talk. But they have not ‘retired’. They are still playing a vital role in the community, preserving, developing and dispensing the wisdom of the group. A narrow definition of ‘productivity’ would completely overlook the importance of their role.

If diversity is to be more than just a nineties buzz word it must make a serious attempt to recognise and respect difference. The school teacher of the mixed class who says, "I treat them all the same" probably means, "I treat them all white."

It is time that employers started recognising the different contributions and needs of their older workers. Yes, they can be conservative and hold things back. They may be slower than the younger worker. Their measurable output may be less. But this may be because a lot of their time is taken up with informal maintenance of the organisation’s shared meanings.

The challenge is to harness the distinctive contribution which the older worker can make. A recent survey organised by Management Training magazine showed that 65% of respondents identified mentoring and coaching as key techniques to help with organisational change. If organisations build mentoring and coaching functions into the job descriptions of their older workers they can get extra value from them. They should expect them to share their knowledge and experience. They should show them how to get past their negativity by learning to engage in dialogue which will bring out helpful lessons from the past.

The experience of the CEO of a major retail chain may be salutary here. When the chain was taken over some years ago he was sidelined. But instead of becoming a guerrilla or antagonist he used his knowledge of the company and its traditions to help the new management operate more effectively. His contributions were always valued and recently he was again appointed to be Managing Director of the company.

The successful organisation needs to be a learning organisation, drawing on all its diverse resources. But without the organic continuity provided by the older worker it will be increasingly difficult for this to flow organically. Let’s celebrate and nurture the distinctive contribution of the over-fifties!

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