While it has been shown that it is easier to keep people in employment than to bring them back into the labour market once they are retired, it remains to be seen how this can be done. In the context of a major labor shortage in Canada, I conducted research to determine how organizations can proceed, what their current management practices are and what levers they could put in place to retain their experienced workforce. I conducted two surveys, one with the workforce to identify their preferences and another with employers to find out about their practices¹.
First, the management of an aging workforce is little taken into account in organizations. In fact, only 37% have management practices that focus on keeping people over 50 in employment, despite the labour shortage many employers are facing. In the private sector, just over (46%) of employers have practices to retain workers of 50; in the public sector, this drops to 24%.
I have seen that there are still prejudices against the aging workforce. Many companies are then tempted to get rid of their older staff or at least not to encourage them to stay on, because they think they cost more and may not be as productive, which is not necessarily the case. They can lead workers to leave in various ways: by no longer offering them ongoing training, including adaptation to new software and work tools; by no longer offering them interesting projects or mandates; by not inviting them to supervise younger or new employees, which can help bring meaning to one’s work. The opposite – training, mentoring and interesting projects – are what firms should provide to attract and retain older workers.
Managers also often manifest “implicit biases” – unconscious belief or prejudices against experienced workers – which leads them underestimate their value and decline to encourage their retention. These biases or prejudices relate to the ability to seek solutions or innovations, as well as knowledge of new technologies, which managers tend to think older workers are lacking. On the other hand, some organizations recognize that experienced workers are very committed to their work and are competent, particularly in terms of customer relations.
A certain number of obstacles to the retention of experienced staff cannot be corrected by the organizations. Indeed, workers will prefer to retire if they have health issues, personal or family problems, or if their spouse retires, and there is not much firms can do to keep them in such cases.
However, organizations can act on other levers to keep older workers in the labour market. Firstly, reducing work overload – especially physical overload in the private sector and mental in the public sector. Employers can offer reduced working hours (e.g. four-day work week, extended holidays) or other arrangements (e.g. flexible hours, banks of hours for overtime).
Another way to retain experienced workers is to offer recognition for their work, which is lacking in many workplaces. Offering interesting, even exciting mandates can also counter the temptation to retire (especially for those who have the means and a good pension plan). Some workers interviewed told us that to stay in a job, you have to find pleasure in it and have pleasant colleagues (you leave toxic environments when you have the means to do so!). Workers also highlighted the importance of finding meaning in their work – feeling that they are providing an important service or that they are useful or even essential (for example, for those in the service or health sector).
“Some workers interviewed told us that to stay in a job, you have to find pleasure in it and have pleasant colleagues.”
Other workers mentioned that it is necessary to offer training to continue the development of one’s skills and knowledge, or even to share them with others in the organization. Are firms doing this yet? Not so much, but they are starting to, as labour shortages become more and more challenging for them.
I found that 60% of firms say they are introducing measures favouring a better work-life balance, such as telework: 23% indicated they offer full time telework, but not to all workers, and 40% offer at least one type of flexible scheduling to some workers. Only 49% reduce work overload, and only 40% try to reduce the emotional or mental load related to work, although we know these are two factors that lead workers to leave their job and even the labour market.
If firms want to attract and retain aging workers, they need to take their preferences into account. And flexibility is the main word: flexibility in working hours and schedules, as well as in the workplace (working from home at least a few days a week). Training and the possibility to mentor younger workers are also part of the solution.
¹ This survey was designed and conducted by Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, professor at TÉLUQ University (university of Québec), with the collaboration of the Order of Certified Human Resources Advisors and with the financial participation of the Government of Quebec. The survey was conducted by the firm Léger, from March 2 to April 3, 2022; 279 companies located in Quebec took part.
For more details on this research, see these two reports:
Tremblay, D.-G. (2022a). Attirer et retenir la main-d’œuvre d’expérience; la situation au Québec. Rapport de recherche sur les aspirations des travailleurs d’expérience et les pratiques des entreprises. Montréal : Comité consultatif 45+ et Université TÉLUQ. 25 pages.
Tremblay, D.-G. (2022b). Comment attirer et fidéliser la main-d’œuvre d’expérience : Quelques propositions pour les employeurs. Rapport de recherche sur les pratiques des entreprises à l’endroit de la main-d’œuvre d’expérience remis au projet La compétence n’a pas d’âge. Rapport de recherche diffusé par LCNA et l’Université TÉLUQ. Montréal. 22 pages.