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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Dr. Kelly Tremblay.
Dr. Tremblay worked as a tenured professor of neuroscience and audiology at the University of Washington for more than 20 years where she held the position of the Director of the Brain and Behavior Laboratory. She has also contributed to the World Health Organization World Report on Aging and Health published in 2015, and Guidelines for Integrated Care for Older People and its toolkit, published in 2019. She also judges research grants for the National Institute of Health communication disorders review committee. A highly sought-after public speaker and panelist, Dr. Trembley delivers presentations on a wide range of related topics on aging, accessibility and inclusion, career development, and technological innovation aimed at enhancing human communication and hearing health.
Kelly, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here with me today for this discussion.
Kelly Tremblay: Thank you, Mari. Thanks for inviting me today.
Mari Ryan: As we look at the word where it is today, we are currently in the midst of what is often called “the silver tsunami.” Currently, one in four workers in the U.S. is over the age of 55. There are more workers in their 50s and 60s than ever before. In today’s conversation, we are going to explore the implications of having older workers in the workplace. Kelly, tell me, why do we have an aging workforce?
Kelly Tremblay: There are a number of reasons, Mari, and you mentioned that this is a growth period of this “silver tsunami” or this “age wave”, as we sometimes call it. It was a problem before Covid-19, but we expected to be an even larger challenge post Covid-19 because we are seeing a number of people lose their jobs, a number of people whose retirement plans have changed and the value of their retirement, stocks and things like that, have declined. So people generally work longer if they need to earn longer.
There are two converging forces here; we are living longer because we are healthier than our parents. That, combined with the baby boomer boost, and our response to crises, whether it’s our individual lives and setbacks, or things Iike Covid-19.
Mari Ryan: It seems as though with this pandemic response that clearly it is going to have some impact, and as you say we’re probably going to see a lot more people staying in the workforce. Other benefits to employers having older workers in their workforce?
Kelly Tremblay: Absolutely. If you look at general stories in the media you’ll see some stereotypes and descriptions as senior workers or older workers being more loyal, committed, finding their purpose in life. That may all be true, they may be flexible, the soft skills are there, but I would also like to emphasize that the experience and mastery that comes as we get older. Think about, for example, if you are having surgery, would you rather have a new graduate operating on you or a surgeon with 30 years under his or her belt? One is the reasons, as a neuroscientist to describe this is as much as things change as we get older, some things peak later in life and one of those things is called “crystallized intelligence.” It peaks around 60 to 70 years of age and that comes from years of experience, prior learning, and that makes us good and gives us perspectives, and it certainly gives us resilience in times of pressures.
One other example would be to think about world leaders, CEOs of companies that are purposely retained because of their talent regardless of age. These people can bring vision and historical context and engage some of the more junior people to execute in ways that play to the strengths of some of the younger generations in the workplace.
Certainly, there are many benefits that come with a senior workforce.
Mari Ryan: I would think that if those senior workers had actually been in the organization for a long time, there is a certain amount of institutional knowledge that has to have tremendous value.
Kelly Tremblay: Agreed. Sometimes we go into a new situation and we might think we need to invent the wheel, but if someone else has already been there and done that and has some context of what worked and what didn’t work, they are able to take that to the next step to say, sure, there may be something new worth trying here, but let’s not forget we’ve learned from past experiences.
Mari Ryan: Good advice. Do employers need to do any preparation in order to be able to take the best advantage of -- and I don’t mean take advantage of -- but to leverage the older workforce that they have?
Kelly Tremblay: Yes, there are many resources that employers can turn to. For example, the Society for Human Resource Management has toolkits, has executive summaries to turn to, and some of those suggestions are specifically geared on how to retain talent, how to manage transitions, so when people do choose to retire how does that institutional knowledge get carried down the line to the next person who is carrying the torch, so to speak. Also, how to manage the multigenerational workplace, which has its own challenges in place. Overall, the common knowledge and positioning based on survey results with in the Society for Human Resource Management is that we as a society are not prepared for the effect of office aging in the workforce. It is something that has often been sparked to the side. I suggest that people look at these publications to look at best practices for hiring and engaging and retaining older workers. That starts from the very first step and that is the messaging that goes out when recruiting and posting a job advertisement.
Mari Ryan: Are there any other best practices that we should be thinking about from the perspective of how to hire, engage, and retain these older workers?
Kelly Tremblay: I think, again, even thinking about recruiting in the first place when we post ads that say we are looking for a digital native, or recent grads preferred. In some ways the nuances of that language can feel exclusionary to people who are of a certain age. I think another way to do it is not to make assumptions about people’s salary demands or their resume may look like they are overqualified for a certain position. You never know what the motives are for an individual when applying for a position. They may be looking for a change, or they may be looking to transfer those skills for various reasons that we don’t fully understand. As an employer, having been in both situations, I think it’s important that we keep age out of the equation because otherwise we will not necessarily be open, fully open, and inclusive in the hiring process.
I think the other thing to encourage people to do is to not provide graduation dates or years of date stamps on certain positions and things like that because that may be sending out a message that age, that it puts an expiring date on you, they can elicit some bias that the employer may not be aware of.
There are a number of tips for employers, and as an employee, if I were looking for a position, I’d like to know what employers are looking for. So going to these expert resources is another tool for the job seekers as well.
Mari Ryan: Great suggestions. When an employer thinks about the aging workforce are there any accommodations that need to be made for someone who is an older worker?
Kelly Tremblay: Yes, and in fact I would put out a challenge there that aging is the new accessibility and inclusion opportunity. Again, you can tell that I see this as a plus. I see this as a good thing. There is no denying that as we grow older there are certain things that are going to change, maybe gravity takes place, but there are also things that change in a way that affect our vision, our hearing, our mobility. It really is about an accessibility, being able to have a work environment that allows us to be able to carry out the skills that we want. In many ways we are in a better place than we ever have been to accommodate some of the frequent barriers to working effectively that come up.
For example, low vision. Not only do we wear glasses now, but we have text-to-speech readers that are automated, and websites, and PDFs that can be read aloud if there is a low vision problem. Hearing loss, which is my specialty, there is nothing worse than an open workspace for somebody with hearing loss. As we age, one in three people over 65 has some degree of disabling hearing loss.
That might be a barrier, but there are ways to work around that. There are captioned phones, there are captioning video conferencing opportunities, and there are other noise reduction methods we can take.
Mobility is another example. A standing desk environment may not be the best thing for someone with mobility issues or back problems. There are things that we can do to easily accommodate some of these barriers that will end up contributing to a diverse workplace and an environment that feels inclusive for all.
Mari Ryan: I love the idea that this is an opportunity for inclusion, but it makes me think that there is still some inherent bias that might exist. How do we overcome that?
Kelly Tremblay: Not only bias, but I also think technology can be a barrier to inclusion too. One of the things that I think has happened, Mari, it’s interesting, it lets us look at how we as a society has had to adjust our work environment as a result of Covid-19. If you are an employer, you had to adjust to the idea of your employees working from home. We feel that as an employee with had to allow flexible work schedules. You’ve maybe had to train people quickly on the use of technology to be able to videoconference and connect from home. You’ve had to find combinations of those people who have special needs, and some of your employees may have to adapt to this normal situation because they may have some accommodation needs.
With Covid-19, as a leader you’ve inherently had to recognize the need for compassion and patience and working in the workplace. A lot of this hard work that we’ve had to do now, I think has prepared us for this age-wave and the silver tsunami, as it is sometimes called too. That’s because the list of things we’ve already had to do could have been cut and pasted from the recommendations of the SHRM executive summary is being how best to prepare for an aging workforce. To be able to retain talent, recognize, and include people of diverse work ages, specifically older workers, these are some of the same things that would work well for accommodating an older worker. That may be a flexible schedule, working from home, recognizing that they need a flexible schedule because they may have more doctors’ appointments, or an aging spouse. All of these things. And if you’ve had to upscale them in terms of the use of technology, keep that going because that will be a skill that they can retain, and your staff can retain from the training efforts that you put in and created to keep them because those are things that will be in place already to accommodate a workforce that maybe works from home.
Mari Ryan: You have made such a good case for why we should be considering and applauding the efforts of the older workers who are a part of the workforce and who will continue to be part of our workforce for years to come.
Kelly Tremblay: You also have to remember the cost of not preparing; you lose your good talent and you have a workforce that is over-skilled and underemployed. It’s good to take advantage of this.
Mari Ryan: I’m certainly hoping that we collectively have many more years in the workplace and employers will continue to welcome the older workers. Kelly, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?
Kelly Tremblay: If you can give the URL below, I work as a consultant to employers and corporate executives around the world and you can find me at lendanear.co.
Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Thanks so much for being here for this conversation on this important topic. I’m always delighted to spend time with you, Kelly. Thank you.
Kelly Tremblay: Thank you, Mari.
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