Senior employees are important to any company: They bring experience and often react more cautiously in crises. All the better if they are committed and motivated. Motivating older employees is not as easy as it seems. It requires appreciation and empathy, but above all it requires constant feedback.

You know those pictures of employees ticking off the days – or even years – until retirement on their wall calendars? It is almost like prisoners counting down the last few days of their sentence. A strange comparison: Do so many people really feel that work is a “prison” from which they can escape only with a “pension”?

Unfortunately, the depressing answer is yes. And this has consequences: For the people themselves, but also for the companies and their customers.

If people feel unappreciated in their jobs if their job satisfaction is low, they will resign – or they will see retirement as the “promised land”.

Abzählen der Kalendertage. Ältere Arbeitnehmer motivieren ist aber etwas anderes!
Counting days until retirement? Better not! The key lies in motivating older employees.

But that does not have to be the case. There are good reasons why motivating older workers is more important than ever: In an era of skills shortages, fewer and fewer young people are entering the workforce. What’s more, experienced older workers possess virtues that are incredibly important: empathy, calmness, and an enormous “soft” wealth of experience that enables them to react correctly even in critical situations.

This article’s contents:

    Living conditions are getting better. Does this also apply to working conditions?

    Basically, the current environment is positive for all of us. In general, life expectancy has increased in almost every country in the world. And not only that: We are also more likely to be “fitter” and more accessible as we age.

    But this also applies to the years before retirement: Technological and social progress is making life increasingly worth living. Many people are spending more time with their families and friends, and are becoming more involved in initiatives and charitable organizations, thanks in part to hybrid and more flexible work schedules and rising prosperity.

    However, this positive development does not necessarily seem to be reflected in the world of work. “Ageism” or “age discrimination” is a widespread phenomenon. Various studies show that older workers or employees close to retirement often do not (or no longer) feel valued in their jobs.

    Yet older workers are a tremendous resource for organizations.

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    Definition: Who is actually an “older” employee?

    We talk about “older” employees all the time. In reality, however, it is impossible to define this term. Often, employees nearing retirement (i.e., over the age of 60) are counted in this group, but when it comes to job applications or recruiting, people over the age of 50 often fall into this group.

    What is certain is that, according to various studies (including one by the German government), there is a tendency to draw the line at “older” at younger and younger ages. This is actually a contradiction in terms, since larger and larger segments of society are “aging” and thus occupying a larger and larger space.

    Why older employees matter

    But regardless of whether they are over 50 or over 60, experienced (older) employees build up a number of plus points as their professional experience increases. A wealth of experience, composure, resilience: there are many reasons and characteristics why older employees are important for companies. And this is especially true for motivated older employees!

    And even apart from individual characteristics, the numbers speak for themselves:

    • Older employees are loyal. They stay with their employer for a longer period of time, thus offering a high degree of reliability.
    • Technologically speaking, older employees (e.g. from the baby boomer generation) have long been at the top of their game. The still widespread image of “digital beginners” is history, as a study by Deloitte also proves.
    • Demographic developments alone are making age cohorts in companies more mixed – which is also a positive example of diversity (source: McKinsey).

    Motivating older workers: These are the starting points

    From a demographic point of view, almost all European societies are currently facing the problem that more people are retiring than are being added to the younger generation. The result is a growing shortage of skilled workers and managers.

    If companies want to remain productive, they must also allow older employees to work longer. However, this should not be done by “sitting out” the (now extended) working hours, but with joy and commitment.

    Some measures to motivate older workers:

    Career development of older employees

    As retirement approaches, “traditional career paths” such as promotions or transfers become less important for most employees. However, the issue of professional development is still very relevant for motivating older employees. Work with employees to identify possible projects that are challenging – and in which colleagues can make the most of their wealth of experience. For example, deliberately setting up cross-generational development projects in which different types of experience can complement each other can be exciting. Give older colleagues the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to younger employees and act as mentors.

    Provide more flexible work arrangements for older employees

    Offer older workers flexible work schedules, part-time options, or the ability to work from home. This can help older workers better balance their work with other commitments, such as caring for family members. Finally, the “hot spots” of life do not end with old age: Older people are taking on more and more caregiving responsibilities at home or filling in for their grandchildren during caregiver shortages. And: They demand this “quality time” for their work-life balance.

    Health promotion

    Offer health programs or screenings to older workers to promote their physical and mental health and ensure they can do their jobs effectively.

    Work/life balance for older employees

    Make sure older workers have a good work-life balance. Excessive workloads or stress can make older workers feel burnt out and want to retire.

    Recognition and appreciation

    Recognize older workers’ accomplishments and celebrate their successes. A simple token of appreciation, such as a thank you note or public recognition, can help older workers feel valued and motivated.

    Motivating older employees: Feedback is the key

    All of these points show that the starting point for motivating older workers is first and foremost individual appreciation and interaction – expressed in regular, respectful and personal feedback. It depends on the individual case. However, as with any other age group, the following also applies to older workers: When intrinsic motivation and external conditions are aligned, your organization will benefit from high levels of employee engagement.

    Employee engagement is becoming a key factor in business development. Companies with engaged employees have higher growth rates and lower employee turnover. It is therefore important to improve the engagement of older employees, as well as all other age groups, by increasing motivation.

    Increase engagement of older employees with feedback metrics

    According to the latest Netigate Employee Engagement Benchmark Report, only 13% of employees in Germany are “highly engaged”. This means that there is still considerable potential in our companies and workplaces.

    Increasing employee engagement is not a trivial task. Nor should it be seen as a one-off project, but rather as an ongoing, and in some cases cultural, effort across the entire organization.

    The first step is to establish measurable metrics so that HR and team leaders have relevant KPIs to measure their actions. For example, the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), which can be measured using eNPS software, has proven to be a very useful “entry point” into employee engagement measurement.

    By conducting regular and occasional (pulse) employee surveys, insights and ideas can be gathered about the state and improvement of the employee experience in the organization.

    There are always 4 dimensions to consider that are important for increasing employee engagement: Direct supervisors, teams, their own jobs, and the company as a whole.

    Let’s make a small digression at the end of this article. Because we can also see the connection between “retirement anxiety” and low motivation in France: Millions of people are taking to the streets to demonstrate against raising the retirement age. The fierce protests are “only” about the increase from 62 to 64 – which is still quite low by European standards.

    There are probably many reasons for the pension protests in France. But one of the most important is the value placed on people in the workplace. Various studies and scholars point to an important connection here: In France in particular, general job satisfaction is low:

    • More than 20% of employees in France are “dissatisfied” or even “very dissatisfied” with their job – a (negative) record in the EU and well above the EU average of 14%. Source: EWCS Quality of Work Survey.
    • Only 45% of employees in France feel valued, compared to much higher levels in Germany and other European countries. This was pointed out by sociologist Luc Rouban in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (edition of 14.4.2023).
    • According to the ADP “People Unboxed” study, 52% of French employees feel misunderstood by their boss – another European record.

    These figures also show on the large scale: If people enjoy their work and feel valued, then something changes – and above all, retirement loses its status as the “last resort.” If frustration gains the upper hand, then the topic of “fun at work” is quickly burned.

    Conclusion: Motivating older employees – a key challenge for organizations

    By treating each other with respect and motivation, people of all ages can become much more “enthusiastic” about their work and activities. These motivated and valued employees stay with the company longer, with many positive effects. And last but not least, the calendar can be used to plan interesting and meaningful activities at work – instead of counting down the days until retirement!