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Rethinking Age!

Franz Herrlein

Age Management is about to become the single biggest HR challenge for companies in the western hemisphere.

Aging societies and thus also aging workforces in companies are a fact that nobody can deny. There are many reasons for this: declining birth rates, empty pension funds, the shortage of skilled workers and, at the same time, many employees taking early retirement. Because the balance of births and deaths has been negative since 1975, more and more pension recipients will face fewer and fewer contributors over the next few years. The pension system is about to collapse.

At the same time, according to a forecast by the Federal Statistical Office, the German labor market will lack up to three million workers in 2030. Immigration alone will not solve the shortage of skilled workers. And raising the retirement age seems doubtful without accompanying measures. If today's employees in a country like Germany retire at an average age of 62.3, raising the retirement age to 67 will result in nothing other than pension cuts.

Nevertheless the basic idea of making better use of the underutilized potential of older employees is the right way to go. Only this does not work through coercion, but through incentives. One way or another, anyone who earns (or has) enough money can afford to retire earlier than the statutory retirement age. The group of higher earners in particular would be important in order to at least partially compensate for the shortage of skilled workers. Important to know: around 50 percent of employees who are retiring look for a part-time job after they retire. So you are not against the work itself.

If we want to ensure that people work longer and not less, the first thing to do is to dispel myths. For example, that older people are less productive, less motivated and less willing to learn. On the one hand, this is a discriminatory view, on the other hand, it is also wrong. Especially when we are talking about professions in which physical performance does not play a significant role.

Peterson and Spyker (2005) showed that older employees show higher loyalty, higher productivity, more specialist knowledge and higher social capital than younger employees. This is supported by Veen (2008): He not only stated that there is no general age-related decline in productivity. On the contrary, he found that the 55+ age group had the highest productivity, particularly in expert and management positions. If these statements are correct, early retirement programs in companies tend to be counterproductive if cost aspects are ignored.

Conversely, it would make sense to keep older employees in the company longer. "Older" starts at the end of 40. Because, at least in the business context, most careers essentially come to a standstill in this age group. In the 50s, there are hardly any significant promotion steps upwards, rather sideways movements, because the next generation is already pawing its hooves.

It can generally be observed in companies that as people get older, less is invested in the further training of the workforce. Younger employees are also preferred over older ones, as the future supposedly lies in them. Companies are subject to a fallacy. Older employees are also an important key to future success.

In order to raise this potential more than before, ageism, age discrimination, must first be countered. This applies to all age groups. Some people might say new joyners in a conmpany can't do certain jobs because they're still too young weighting age over experience and know-how. In same way older employees might be considered to be simply too old and therefore no longer able or willing to perform. There are many examples of ageism, so it is not surprising that this is the most common form of discrimination worldwide. In our consulting work, it is not least for this reason that older employees give us a lack of appreciation for them as a main reason for declining motivation.

It is interesting at this point that some companies set up workshops to change the mindset of the older workforce towards more motivation. But that works in the rarest of cases. If you want to keep older employees in the company, it is much more important to anchor a correspondingly appreciative communication and corporate culture and to create specific, new job offers. Further training should also not be age-dependent. Even if someone only has a few years of work ahead of them, training should be offered.

Another lever would be recruiting measures that appeal to older people. If there are trainee programs for younger people, why not for older applicants too? It is also important to develop dialogue formats in companies and fill them with life in which careers beyond the age of 50 are actively planned. A career does not necessarily have to be associated with promotions to the top.

We find time and again that sideways movements into new specialist areas can be attractive. For some managers, this also means handing over the function to younger colleagues. Be it in the sense of a slow transition through tandem solutions or the mentoring of the new manager by the previous one. This is also consistent with the fact that older employees in our projects repeatedly point out that they want to pass on their knowledge. And not only their expert knowledge, but also their experiences as managers and their network knowledge, their social capital.

Age management must become an integral part of workforce planning. Individual solutions are important. A first approach in this direction can be to form clusters via employee surveys, each of which contains different offers. For example, the cluster of those who definitely want to retire earlier, to the cluster of those who want to work beyond retirement age, but in different functions than before.

In our work, we came up with five to ten typical employee profiles in most companies, to which corresponding clusters with associated age management approaches could be assigned. This alone shows that standard offers, often limited to early retirement, are doomed to fail. In order to remain viable as a company, it is necessary to rethink the taboo topic of age and make it a central topic of HR strategy. Companies that succeed in this not only open up an additional supply of workers, they also increase their attractiveness as employers and their competitiveness.


Peterson, S.J. and Spiker, B.K. (2005): Establishing the Positive Contributory Value of Older Workers: A Positive Psychology Perspective. Organizational Dynamics, 34, 153-167.

Veen, S. (2008): Demographischer Wandel, alternde Belegschaften und Betriebsproduktivität, München, Hampp Verlag

Note: The German version of this article has been published at HR Journal, May 10, 2022,

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