Age(ing)-appropriate workplaces – what has to be done?

Work is changing, and so are we. The conditions are changing constantly, and more importantly, faster and faster. Lifelong learning is a prerequisite if we want to keep up, and we need to keep up longer because we are getting older and older and our careers are getting longer and longer, which means we are working longer.

20. December 2017

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That much is obvious. But if we work longer – i.e. we want to and should be productive at an older age – how can we maintain our ability to work? And what is important the important aspect – age-appropriate workplaces or ageING-appropriate workplaces? Is it enough to make work more convenient for the elderly or do we need to start at the beginning, with the young, so that they don’t become needy in old age?

“Employing older people will be an important part of ensuring the availability of skilled workers in the future.”

Peter Wollseifer, president of the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts

Let us first define the term “age-appropriate workplaces”. The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs wrote in its “Progress report: ‘Age-appropriate workplaces’: The goal is to maintain the ability and willingness to work in order to ensure that everyone can continue to work until they reach the standard retirement age.” According to the report, there are three main aspects to achieving this:

  1. the organisation and conception of workplaces,
  2. the promotion of health within an organisation, and last, but not least,
  3. the training and qualification of employees.

But what does that mean for age-appropriate workplaces in practice? How can companies shape their future during the age of demographic change? The ageing workforce concept provides some orientation. In general, the concept addresses the effects of company demographics and suggests practical measures to deal with it. The goal is to change the age distribution of the workforce so that companies can benefit from it. This means: age-appropriate models for work hours, the availability of the expertise and experience of older employees, specialist qualifications, and the lifelong development of skills. Because according to the basic concept of an ageing workforce, the main challenge that will be brought on by changes in society and the labour market is that the average age of employees is increasing, and qualified workers and young talents are hard to find. Therefore, we must maintain the ability of older employees to remain competitive and efficient, keep our current employees healthy and in the company as long as possible, and tap the full potential of all employees.

The focus is on ageing-appropriate workplaces

So if we are talking about all (!) employees, then the decisive focus is not on age-appropriate but rather on ageing-appropriate workplaces. This also changes the questions we need to ask the HR and senior management of companies: How can we manage mixed-age teams while also doing justice to all generations? How can different generations be successfully supported and promoted? What are the specific aspects that need to be taken into consideration?

Ergonomics, of course, plays an important role for maintaining health at the workplace – no matter how old you are. Not only do different age groups have different physiological needs, they are also in different stages of life. In order to meet the ensuing demands, we need a variety of models for work hours and flexibility to organise the workplace. Generally speaking, people need freedom to be able to adapt to the constantly, and rapidly, changing work conditions and technologies in the age of digitisation. Lifelong learning is a prerequisite for being able to keep up. The rapid and often sudden developments in technology will also make new forms of learning necessary. It may even be necessary to develop different learning programmes for each generation.

How productive are the different generations in reality and what conditions can an employer provide in order to create a positive and effective work environment for everyone? What does the “ideal demographic company” look like? The challenges that companies are facing are huge, the answers are not easy to find, and the solutions are not always scalable. Scientific research is necessary and useful. Mixed-age teams and the suitable room for manoeuvre will play just as big a role as an appropriate distribution of tasks. We do not even need to mention that prejudice and age stereotypes about the old and the young are not at all acceptable. Instead, we need to promote the qualities of each generation. Including all generations is the order of the day.