Unanswered Questions

Over the past three years, The Conference Board Mature Workforce Initiative has looked at many issues surrounding the hiring, training, motivation, and retention of older workers. But an almost equally large number of questions remain to be answered, including how to change ageism in a corporate setting. Some gaps in employers’ understanding of mature workers were apparent before the onset of the global recession; others have surfaced only with the vast changes that have occurred in the world’s economies.

Questions include issues surrounding technology. Do older workers lag behind younger counterparts in their knowledge and use of office technology and Internet-based research and services? How do they view the business applications of social networking sites and how are smart companies using social networking to foster teamwork and build their businesses? If gaps exist in older workers’ understanding and use of technology, can they be closed by training, and what form should that training take?

The research already completed by The Conference Board Mature Workforce Initiative, in particular the study of cognitive fitness done in partnership with the Dana Foundation, suggests that mature workers are acutely aware of the need to maintain their cognitive fitness and their capacity for learning remains strong. The research on knowledge transfer suggests "reverse mentoring" has the potential to improve mature workers’ technology skills. At the same time, it brings reciprocity into knowledge sharing and generates cross-generational trust.

Questions of technical capability and training are also prominent in discussions about the effects global economic change will have on older workers, particularly in emerging "green" businesses and the restructuring of the auto industry. What role can mature workers play as their employers emphasize environmentalism and sustainability? Are old skills transferable to new industries? Do older workers have a personal commitment to environmentalism that could help cement the creation of a stronger multigenerational workforce?

In the auto sector, tens of thousands of auto workers—often mature workers—are losing their jobs as the industry retrenches. In the wings, however, is a new generation of auto entrepreneurs looking to build sustainably powered cars. Can one group help the other? How can the skills and strengths of auto workers be transferred to these and other industries? What are the stumbling blocks to finding new jobs for former auto workers? How many earlier auto retirees will seek to rejoin the workforce as their retirement benefits are cut back? Additionally, the restructuring of the U.S. auto industry may necessitate changes in pension laws and management. What will the fallout be for other industries?

As we consider new issues, we must remain mindful of the evolution of subjects already addressed in the Mature Workforce Initiative. The reports produced to date look at when current workers were expected to retire, and how much work they wanted to do post-retirement. Given the turmoil of the recession and the magnitude of retirement savings that have been lost as a result of the financial downturn, how have those attitudes changed? What new expectations do boomers have of their retirement years? How do their current—and future—employers need to adjust?

Researchers may want to revisit the role of corporate social responsibility in the aftermath of the recession. Many companies developed social responsibility and community outreach programs over the past decade—programs that some saw as a way for mature workers to transition to nonprofit jobs. How has that bridge been affected by the recession? What will be the role of social responsibility programs as the economies of America and the world rebuild?

 

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