Strategies to Attract, Engage and Retain Older Workers

” As a nation, we have been concerned for more than half a century about issues related to our aging  workforce” writes The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. (Adapted exceprts by Job Market Monitor)

In August 1950, the first national Conference on Aging was held in Washington, D.C. to fulfill President Truman’s request for a report on “the problems incident to our increasingly older population.” The conference planners believed the event should have a wide scope, because studies had shown that the period of “retirement or old age” was lengthening and that problems adjusting to aging were as “broad as life itself.”

Today, life expectancy continues to rise and the country’s age distribution is shifting upward. According to 2010 US Census data, our population’s median age is 37.2, up from 32.6 in 1990; 39% of us are older than 45, up from 31% in 1990; and, for the first time, people who are 45 and older represent a majority (53%) of the voting-age population.

The Sloan Center on Aging & Work conducts research on innovative practices that address the needs of older workers and business. In 2011, the Centre launched a project titled “Flex Strategies to Attract, Engage & Retain Older Workers” to answer the following questions:

1. Do organizations have workplace flexibility strategies?
2. How do employers incorporate age into their flexibility strategies?
3. How are organizations making decisions about flexibility issues related to older workers?
4. What business drivers are influencing employers’ decisions about flexibility and older workers?
5. What innovative practices are employers developing in such areas of workplace flexibility as
scheduling, hours worked, place of work, career flow, and job design?
6. What challenges have employers faced in launching innovative practices?
7. How are employers measuring success?

The paper explores each of these questions through case studies of three Sloan Center employer partners: Central Baptist Hospital, Marriott International, and MITRE Corporation.

Key Finfings

From the research and interviews conducted for this project, four points emerged:

1. Workplace flexibility strategy, in general, is not formally defined. Each employer has in place a variety of informal flexibility strategies enabling employees of
all ages to accomplish work in the most efficient and collaborative manner. Among these strategies are practices that specifically meet the needs of older workers. However, in theircommunications with employees, the employers describe flexibility strategies as offering something for employees at every stage of life.

2. Issues that formed the business case for flexibility are broad. The following drivers motivated employers to initiate flexibility strategies:
• recruit, retain, and engage older workers
• retain experienced staff and circumvent massive retirements
• “re-career” older workers instead of losing them to external opportunities
• help older workers continue to be effective on the job
• engage retirees and tap into their knowledge and skills.

3. Organizations should take the dimensions that influence perceptions of age—a concept that the Sloan Center has deemed the “Prism of Age”—into account in their efforts to develop promising flexibility practices. Each of the employers was familiar with the Sloan Center’s Prism of Age framework and how the dimensions it captures influence the design of solutions to meet the needs of the aging workforce. Having a clear understanding of the dimensions that shape employees’ perceptions of age and related life and career stages is important when
launching innovative practices.

4. Innovative practices address the concerns of managers. For each employer, it was important for the flexibility solutions they developed to address
managers’ concerns about trust, losing control, coaching older workers, and to help managers understand how to implement some of the more innovative approaches to job design, scheduling, and career flexibility.

Older workers rethink retirement age

According to a study that the AARP conducted in early 2011, 36% of American baby boomers who are in the workforce feel they may not be able to retire; only 15% expect not to work at all during their retirement years.

The 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), found that workers of all ages are planning to retire later and most (74%) expect to work for pay after “retirement.” In the past decade, the percentage of workers expecting to retire after age 65 has increased significantly in every age group.


The economic downturn has had an effect on retirement plans. A national survey conducted by the MetLife Mature Market Institute in 2009 found that half of the respondents between the ages of 55 and 70 had in the previous two years changed their minds about how soon they could retire and had put the date off. Of these respondents, 67% said they needed to rebuild financial resources; 41% said they needed to supplement pensions or Social Security; 28% expressed a need for continued access to company-provided benefits. Only 15% cited “enjoy working” as their reason to defer retirement. More than half (55%) said their primary motivation to continue working was to maintain income for basic expenses.

Employers Strategies

Employers are developing strategies to recruit and retain older workers. In 2010 the
Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) collaborated with AARP to conduct a poll of human resources administrators on strategic workforce planning. They found that 60% of the organizations responding had some initiatives in place to attract, engage, and retain older workers.

Findings about the use of strategies specifically to recruit and retain workers past retirement age are outlined in Table 2.

Source: ibid 

Conclusion & Recommendations

Employees in all stages of life and career desire workplace flexibility. The Sloan Center’s “Age & Generations Study” found that flexibility contributes to the building of a healthy and effective workplace. For older workers—indeed, for employees in all age groups—having access to flexibility is predictive of greater employee engagement, less stress related to perceptions of work overload, better physical and mental health, and greater satisfaction with work/family balance.

However, for maximum impact, flexibility must be the right fit for each employee. To accomplish this for older workers, the employers featured in this report offer a variety of options to customize when and where work is accomplished and how careers are organized.

This exploration suggests the following recommendations for other employers:

• Address the issues that impact flexibility fit:

    • broad access to a variety of workplace flexibility options
    • supervisor support for workplace flexibility
    • work team support for workplace flexibility
    • positive culture on the job surrounding work life and family/personal life
    • usability of available workplace flexibility options

• Conduct internal research to understand the specific demographics and retirement
patterns of the organization’s workforce.

• Assess the flexibility and career needs of older workers through surveys, focus groups, and interviews with employees and managers.

• Create a multidisciplinary task force, including older workers, to focus on the needs of an aging workforce in the areas of flexibility.

• Evaluate how the organization might use flexibility to recruit older workers, engage
retirees as mentors, fill part-time or seasonal positions, or provide specialized expertise.

• Develop and communicate a broad range of schedule, workplace and career flexibility options for hourly and salaried workers.

• Offer skill development to help managers and HR professionals create a more flexible workplace culture and effectively lead older workers

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