Intergenerational Education Plan – The Workplace Perspective

Stephen McNair

Questions for older workers:

  1. Have you thought about what skills and knowledge you have which younger workmates might benefit from?
  2. How did you learn the skills which make you good at your job?  How might you pass on this learning to workmates?
  3. Do your younger workmates have skills and knowledge which you would like to learn? How might you get them to help you?
  4. Older people often find it difficult to find work if they become unexpectedly unemployed after 50.              Have you considered what skills you have which you might want to offer a new employer if you               became redundant in your present job, or how you might develop appropriate skills?

Questions for younger workers:

  1. Older workers have often learned a lot from their years of experience. How can you learn from them?
  2. Do you have particular skills and knowledge which you could offer to older workmates?

Questions for line managers:

  1. Do all workers have equal access to formal training courses?
  2. The quality of peoples' work is often improved if they have a clear picture of how it fits into a broader picture – of the organisation and their own place in it. Do training opportunities help workers to have a broader view of the organisation and their future careers, or do they focus entirely on the immediate task?
  3. Do you make opportunities available to help older and younger workers to share ideas and experience?

Questions for senior managers, and human resource staff

  1. Does your organisation encourage workers to learn from each other as well as from formal courses?
  2. Have you considered how peoples' aspirations and capabilities for work change with age, and how jobs might be organised to accommodate this?
  3. Does training encourage workers (of all ages) to broaden their horizons and career aspirations?
  4. Do you have systems in place to enable workers who are approaching retirement to pass on their skills and knowledge to younger colleagues?

Why Intergenerational Learning at the workplace matters - The Workplace Perspective

There are two main reasons why intergenerational learning matters in the workplace:  the extending of working life beyond 65, and the speed of change in technologies and practices in the workplace. These two factors mean that the length of working life has grown, and the need for lifelong learning has increased.

In the early years of the 20th century most countries introduced the notion of "retirement", accompanied by some form of pension to enable people to live after they had ceased paid work.  However, life expectancy has been rising steadily across Europe ever since1, which means that the length of this period in retirement, and thus the costs of pensions, have been growing rapidly. As a result Governments have been seeking to raise the age at which people retire2.  However, simply staying longer doing the same job may not be a realistic option for many. The increasing speed of change in technologies means that anyone who learned their skills before their early 20s, and has done no further training since, will find that they are no longer employable 30 or 40 years later. They need the chance to update their skills and knowledge, probably both through formal training courses, but also through informal learning with workmates, who may be of very different ages.

Although there is some political resistance to retiring later, research suggests that many older people welcome the chance to continue in work if it is interesting; provides them with a sense of being contributing members of society; provides a network of friends;  and maintains their income. Although many people believe that people's capabilities decline rapidly around 60, research evidence is clear that most people in their 60s are now much healthier and more capable than previous generations at the same age.  Furthermore, changes in working practices and technologies mean that most work now involves much less physical effort than it did in the past, making it easier for people with declining physical strength. Studies of the relative performance of older and younger workers show that older workers typically achieve comparable results, working more slowly, but making fewer mistakes, because they can draw on years of experience. In countries where there are no regulations to prevent it, some people continue happily in paid work into their 90s.

Much of the most important learning which people do in the workplace comes from informal contact between colleagues with different skills and knowledge. Often such learning is mutual: involving a sharing of expertise in both directions. The classic case of such learning is where older workers who have had little previous contact with computers and information technology, learn about it from young people who have grown up with these technologies, while younger workers learn the tacit skills which older colleagues have acquired through years of experience and practice. Occasionally such knowledge transfer is formally structured, with programmes organised to help experienced workers to develop their skills as trainers, or to pass on their expertise through structured demonstration, or as recognised mentors.

However, not all work is "good work" and some work damages the health of older workers.  A well managed intergenerational workplace is likely to recognise, and make adjustments for the ways in which peoples' aspirations and abilities change across the lifecourse. It will also encourage informal contact between generations and between parts of the organisation, so that workers of all ages get a sense of the underlying purposes of the organisation, their place within it, and the possible opportunities for future career development (which may happen at any age).

[1] Every five years sees a rise in average life expectancy of one year.
[2] So that they spend longer contributing, and less time receiving a pension.