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5 ways to maximize the contributions of older public sector workers

5 ways to maximize the contributions of older public sector workers
Learn how to build stronger, generationally diverse teams
Bradley SchurmanBradley Schurman, May 20, 2019

For years, public-sector leaders around the world have grappled with a “workforce crisis.” In short, the workforce is aging at an unprecedented rate with fewer and fewer young people entering public service and more and more workers staying past traditional retirement age. For reference, the current average age for public sector employees is the US alone 45.4, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While this average age may not seem shocking at first blush, a 2017 analysis from Politico found that there was stark variation among US Federal agencies. In some, the upward age shift borders on mind-blowing. Sixty-nine percent of NASA's workforce is over 45 years old. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it's 70 percent. At the Government Publishing Office (GPO), it's 80 percent.

Public-sector leaders around the world have historically focused on transferring skills and knowledge from older employees to younger ones, anticipating that there would eventually be a great exodus of older workers.  This exodus never occurred.  While transferring skills remains necessary, these leaders need to embrace and nurture the skills that older workers have acquired, while luring younger workers into public careers and equipping them with older workers’ knowledge immediately.

AARP explored intergenerational teams in their 2016 report, Disrupt Aging in the Workforce. Author Lori Trawinski explained that “by removing the lens of age as a way to view existing or potential employees, we shift the focus to their abilities, skills, and knowledge.” Further, she shared, “We must also recognize that differences exist in the experiences, expectations, styles, and perspectives of people from different generations. While differences can sometimes be a source of conflict, these same differences can become a source of strength and innovation when addressed and managed well.”  

Here are five ways to capitalize on the contributions of older, experienced workers, while building a stronger, generationally diverse workforce:  

1. Embed knowledge transfer into your culture. The traditional last-minute approach to passing knowledge from retiring workers to younger ones isn’t inherently wrong. It’s just short-sighted, and doesn’t produce optimal outcomes. 

Knowledge transfer needs to be an ongoing practice that begins on Day No. 1 for a new worker and continues until every employee last day on the job. Moreover, managers should focus on continual skills transfer back and forth between experienced and less-experienced employees. Formal mentoring programs are a natural solution to this challenge. However, organizations should also invest in “reverse mentoring” that empowers younger workers to share their knowledge up to more experienced employees and managers.   

2. Educate, educate, educate. Public-sector employees stay in their jobs nearly twice as long as private-sector ones. According to the BLS, in January 2018, public-sector workers had a median tenure of 6.8 years, considerably higher than the median of 3.8 years for private-sector employees. Further, older workers tend to stay around longer than their younger counterparts. This means public sector employees, especially older ones, have the potential to be great assets, but they may also need continuing education. It’s imperative that public-sector employees have the tools they need to succeed from early on to later in their careers.

Brian Elms, a public sector innovation expert and the best-selling author of Peak Performance explains; “Employees, just like infrastructure assets require ongoing care and investments.  When we reengage our strongest assets in our organizations, our employees, we spark creativity and innovation throughout our workforce.”

3. Communicate, but in ways that work. Time after time, workforce experts have identified rifts in the way generations speak with one another. Remember the Baby Boomers’ clarion call not to trust anyone over 30? Today, Millennials and Gen Z don’t trust anyone that doesn’t use technology to communicate. 

Communication between managers—especially middle managers—and their generationally diverse teams is central in all conversations from product and service design to implementation. 

Organizations should invest in technology platforms that facilitate and encourage greater communication and collaboration between generations. However, the benefits of communications technology can only be realized if staff share in the vision and are trained to use them effectively. 

4. Empower employees. Successful private- and public-sector employers have learned this lesson.  Let employees tell you how they want to work, learn and serve. Many employee engagement and benefits strategies are built with a younger workforce in mind thinking about “how to do we keep you for the next 5-10 years” without much thought for “how do we make the most out of your final 5-10 years.” Create that balance by asking employees how best to work with their needs and aspirations. Build an engagement and benefits structure that embraces generational wants and needs. 

5. End ageism.  Ageism is perhaps the most pervasive and most permitted bias allowed in the workplace, regardless of legal prohibitions against the practice. Studies have shown that it negatively impacts organizational effectiveness. Sensitivity to age bias for those young and those old helps employers make the workforce more welcoming and stronger across generations. 

According to Dr. Mary Barnes, Director of Workforce Transformation at the US General Services Administration (GSA), ““Ageism can be either pre-judging someone based on their age or treating them with kid gloves and lowering your expectations of them because of their age. If you want to address ageism in the workplace, you need to practice basic good management: set clear expectations of success, leverage everyone’s individual strengths, and treat everyone on the team equitably. The employee-supervisor contract means employees should all feel heard, understood and respected. Managers must understand this is true of any employee no matter their age or years of service. You have to consider what it is going to take to make that individual employee, with individual strengths, successful.”

It’s foolish for organizations to ignore the opportunities presented by older workers who stay longer in their public-sector careers. Public-sector organizations should shift from an attitude of diversity OR inclusion to a culture of diversity AND inclusion, as it relates to their older workers. These investments will improve the contributions of older workers, as well as the overall effectiveness of public-sector organizations to serve the public. 

This article was co-authored by T.J. Londagin, founder and CEO of Totem, a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm.