By Dr. Roze Phillips, Managing Director for Accenture Consulting
Is ageism the new racism? As businesses race to secure scarce born-digital skills, older, more experienced workers are being discarded. In an attempt to address youth unemployment, governments are considering it too. It’s a short sighted strategy. Inter-generational skills transfer can unlock untapped opportunities to differentiate and drive economic growth.
What businesses are clearly missing is the fact that digital does not just change their business models and how they engage with their clients, it is changing the very fabric of the “workplace” – a wider variety of digitally-enabled working arrangements give more people access to work, and gives business access to a pool of global skills on demand. Governments need to take note.
The current state of play
- As the digital age ushers in new ways of working and engaging up and down the business value chain, businesses are ditching older, more experienced, workers in favour of younger, more tech savvy, change-ready employees that they believe will give them the agility they need to exploit new opportunities.
- Governments keen to address youth unemployment, especially in countries on the African continent, in Latin America and in India where populations are younger, are getting in on the act by tabling discussions around reducing the age of mandatory retirement.
And there’s a third factor coming into play: as technologies continue to mature, automation and artificial intelligence threaten to shrink global workforces to crises proportions – a crises for workers and governments, that is.
The questions businesses need to be asking are: what unique combination of capabilities will provide business advantage and how can we develop those capabilities most effectively?
Digital technology can drive cross-generational collaboration
Digital technologies, instead of being a catalyst to radically transform the age demographic of the workforce, can help unlock untapped potential across the generations by enabling cross-generational collaboration.
Consider the South African workforce.
The statistics paint an alarming picture. Stats SA figures from the Q4 2016 Quarterly Labour Force Survey place unemployment among the youth in South Africa (those aged 15 to 34) 10.6 percent above the national average of 26.5 percent. Among older, more experienced workers, unemployment is less of a problem. There’s no guarantee that forcing them into early retirement to make place for the youth will add any value to the economy however. A more inclusive strategy by business is required.
On the one hand we have Millennials and their younger cousins, Gen Zs. These largely inexperienced workers are digital natives who are highly tech-savvy and change-adaptable. On the other hand we have older, more experienced workers. Stuck in a pre-digital mindset, many are unable to fully utilise their business savvy. Is there a way to help these two groups tap into each other’s skills to mutual benefit?
Recent Accenture research points very clearly to the fact that employees are not only excited by the changes digital portends, they are actively pursuing new skills.
Unlocking the growth potential of age diversity is a two-way street though. Platforms and processes need to be put in place make the transfer of experience and digital knowhow across the generations possible.
Some practical steps
- If you are “born before digital”, become digitally fluent.
Embrace digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective. Let the younger generation of digital natives help you engage with the tools, mindsets and ways of working that will characterise the future of work. Tapping into the digital savvy of the youth will help you calibrate your mindset in a world in which organisations are becoming ever-flatter, more dynamic and team-driven, and work arrangements are becoming increasingly flexible and even freelance.
- If you are born-digital, listen.
Business experience is in short supply—tap into the knowledge of experienced workers if you want to seal the deal and achieve strategic outcomes. Find business mentors and coaches who can help you understand complex issues and better map your career path.
- If you are a going-digital business, transform.
As you are driven to recalibrate for digital, consider how changing up traditional ways of working can benefit your business and provide a path for your existing and future employees to get to grips with digital technologies.
Picture a business that seamlessly mixes resources into ad-hoc diverse teams to accomplish specific goals, then disperses and re-mixes these teams to move on and accomplish the next up-front benefit. This reality is being fuelled by an increasingly digital and on-demand workforce—a global pool of skills that businesses can tap into on-demand—enabled by virtual workforce platforms like Upwork, collaboration tools like Slack and Yammer, and collaborative online management solutions like Asana, Wrike and Confluence.
Business is built on talent
In a world in which the concept of retirement at 60 or 65 is rapidly becoming outdated, digital technologies and workplace marketplaces can open the door to more freelance and part-time work opportunities that can help prolong, reinvent and expand productive work for individuals of all ages. For businesses it’s a source of on-tap talent that can drive innovation, agility and competitiveness.
The ultimate takeaway is this: in this digital age, businesses can and should implement inter-generational skills and experience transfer. By changing traditional ways of working (i.e., leveraging new platforms, technologies and teaming concepts), companies will give more people access to work while also boosting their business talent quotient and their opportunity for success in a digital age.