How to get more from your boomer employees

It’s easy to assume that older members of an organization have no more career ambitions and that they’re content with whatever level of success they’ve attained. But that’s not at all true says Sue Honore, a researcher at Ashridge Business School in England.

Not only do many employees remain ambitious past their fiftieth birthday, many bosses are missing out on a golden opportunity to improve their businesses by not leveraging the strengths of workers in their golden years.

That’s not to say there aren’t some “ostriches” out there, a term Honore uses to refer to boomers who are not open to new experiences or technology. But according to a new study that Honore co-authored, these traditionalists do not represent most boomers.

Read: Rethink your approach towards mature employees

Why do managers need to start thinking about this now? As people live longer and work well beyond traditional retirement age, the contributions of middle-aged or older employees will play an increasingly important role in economic success.

Honore’s report forecasts a four-generation workforce, “where staff in their 70s and 80s will be working alongside those in their 20s.” Figuring out how to keep employees, especially older ones, motivated and engaged is bound to become more complicated as workplace demographics shift and collide.

Here’s Honore’s advice on how to better manage boomer employees, for their own benefit and the betterment of your company.

1. They are itching to pass on their wisdom

Especially in large organizations, boomer employees who are in senior roles but not necessarily at the top of the pyramid are often stuck in positions where they’re doing repetitive work and not stretching themselves. That’s a big blind spot for companies. “They ignore them, they’re just there … and they take them for granted,” says Honore. “[But they have] all this accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s not written down.”

Read: Why OAS needs a makeover

Look at what your employees are good at and get them to do more of that thing, says Honore. And give them opportunities to pass on those skills to more junior members of the organization. You won’t realize how important that knowledge is until it’s gone, warns Honore. A common refrain within companies is, “I heard so and so retired and it took us a year to get back to the stage where we were before that,” she says. “It’s not one isolated case.”

2. They can be massively influential

Unlike their  younger colleagues, boomers are not driven by the desire to rack up accolades. The researchers found that they are motivated by more complex, intrinsic factors. Mental stimulation (63%), fulfillment (59%) and sense of purpose (49%) far outweighed extrinsic motivators like status (15%).

In order to remain engaged and effective, boomer employees need to feel like those motivational needs are being met. And that can have positive knock-on effects – with seniority comes gravitas and the ability to persuade others. If they can do these things, “they will have a positive impact on, boost the wellbeing of, and build the resilience of their surrounding workers,” Honore says.

3. They are excellent at face-to-face communication

Whereas your millennial employees may feel more comfortable communicating on Slack, boomer employees excel when given the opportunity to interact with clients in person.

In her research, Honore found that retail operations are the best at playing to boomers’ strengths. When they’re on the sales-floor, they’re “treated as experts” and not “has-beens” by customers and management alike.

4. They’re not as tech-unsavvy as you think

There’s a widespread assumption that only millennials (and the next age cohort, Gen Z) posses the preternatural ability to code or work with technology. If you believe with this, it might be time to brush up on your history: The computers of the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s required users to have knowledge of the DOS programming language. Who do you think was responsible for inventing the home computer?

Read: How demographics are changing your workforce

Boomers are not as afraid of taking on new technical challenges as you might think. And training them in new systems is doubly worthwhile because they are excellent at training others. “If you give the older person the chance and it’s relevant to their work, they will pass the skill on to others more quickly,” says Honore.

5. They’re worth poaching

If you’re trying to grow some young people into management material, task a boomer with mentoring them. That way you can reap the benefit of having a wiser staff member around for counsel while also keeping the leadership pipeline flowing.

One disclaimer: If you must reduce a boomer’s hours to transition in a replacement, you should keep his or her salary at the same level. “There must be the appearance that that person has the same value to the organization – then everyone’s happy,” says Honore.

You may even consider recruiting a boomer on the verge of retirement from another company to do some consulting with younger employees. Honore says this could be a smart strategy for small- to medium-sized enterprises, in particular.

“They have all that experience of running different parts of the business and being able to help,” she says. “You  could probably find someone who, instead of commuting hundreds of miles a day, would be quite happy to work with small businesses locally on a part time basis and really help those businesses as a consultant.”

Read: Top 3 retirement realities for boomers

This article was originally published on Benefits Canada‘s companion site,