There’s a growing trend, probably originating in some happy, progressive, Scandinavian country, to build retirement villages and early childhood centres next to each other. As well as physical proximity, the organisers of both centres work together to plan cooperative activities so, in a planned and managed way, the people at one end of a lifetime interact meaningfully with people from the other end. Results so far are positive and encouraging. The younglings benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, whilst the retirees are re-energised in the presence of youth. This is probably that whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mindset people throw around that we all use to lean on back in our tribal times so the middle people in their peak productive years could go out and hunt, gather and pillage depending on their skillset and testosterone levels.
This synergy born of close physical proximity has a name. It’s called propinquity. Look it up in a dictionary. If you don’t have a dictionary, google where to buy one. (Hint – you could google propinquity directly). Drop it into dinner party conversation. Apparently, studies have been done on effective working relationships and lifelong personal friendships. The studies sought to identify what the drivers of such successful relationships were. It turned out that simply being next to each other at some crucial point in time was the single most influential factor. You’d be amazed at how many best buddy friendships were formed with the person in the chair next to you on the first day of primary school, simply because everyone was seated alphabetically and Craig’s surname also ended in W.
This principle of propinquity comes into play in the workplace, and its potential benefits escalate if managed wisely, when you have a multi-generational workforce. I was MCing an HR conference recently and saw an eye-opening presentation on diversity. There were the obvious cultural and racial declarations and statistics such as Auckland being the 2nd most racially diverse city in the OECD behind Toronto. Quite apart from that was information about age diversity. It’s becoming increasingly normal to have workplaces with five generations of people working there.
I guess if you got a school leaver at sixteen and someone in their 70s, you could probably divide that into five generations. I did chat with someone at that conference who spoke about handing a bunch of letters in pre-sealed and stamped envelopes to their fresh, teen employee and asked if she could post them on her way home. He reports that she just stared at him and asked what he meant. There are actually people in fulltime, adult, paid employment who don’t know what a letter is or how to post one. I had a conversation myself with some other people about analogue clocks and how you can throw the odd young person with a phrase like, “Quarter past”. I’m sure young people are having the same conversations in reverse when we completely misunderstand invitations to, “Netflix and chill”. (Google it if you need to – probably NSFW. Google NSFW if you need to…)
Can New Zealand workplaces generate benefits with multi-generational workforces in the same way that those Scandinavian retirement village / early childhood centre combos do? Just randomly letting it happen and hoping for the best will not garner those benefits, unless by accident. The reason the retirement village / early childhood centre combos work is due to planning and management. It’s deliberate, it’s monitored constantly, and interventions are done as and when required. Some things happen that weren’t anticipated but lessons are learned with structured debriefing processes. Some things are easily anticipated and they’re planned for in a flexible way. For example, the traditional notion of retirement as switching the work switch to ‘off’ and going from fully employed one day to gardening / fishing / recreational vehicle-ing the next day is becoming less clear cut. Smart employers have a range of options and are open to innovative suggestions from those impacted.
Talent may want to cut back a bit and have a transition period, maybe over months or even years, working less hours or days and maybe even cherry-picking projects, whilst still being on-call if their institutional memory suddenly is needed on an ad hoc basis. If they’re truly talented and productive, they’ve probably earned it and it’s probably worth it. But, just because someone is old doesn’t mean they’re wise and just because someone is young doesn’t mean they’re an energetic go-getter. A much more individualised approach to managing personal retirement options and transitions is the way of the future.
While all this is happening to those people at the retirement end of their working lives, bearing witness to it are those starting out or in the middle. How you treat those people isn’t just about those people. It sends a powerful message, positive or negative, to upcoming talent on just how disposable they might end up being themselves.
Not every workplace should have employees bringing in their preschoolers though. Some people really need to focus on their air traffic controlling duties.
“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.” I’d give you the name of the guy who said that (which I do know) because it is a great quote when applied to learning and development. But I’m not going to. It turns out the guy died at the age at 41 in incredibly tragic circumstances that won’t benefit anyone from attention here. Suffice to say that the guy had a problem, a fairly common one, that if addressed early on might have prevented the tragedy. Theoretically. However, in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.
This might be irony. There’s a lot of confusion, if not on the dictionary definition, then certainly on some examples. I sold an ironing board on Trademe. The buyer kept calling it an ‘irony board,’ ironically without a shred of irony. I think we’d all like a functional ‘irony board’ where we can stand and place on it our ipad and share on social media that video where a guy recites a poem about how sad it is that everyone spends so much time on social media, while listening on iTunes to that song by Alannis Morrisette called ‘Ironic’ which at no point ever provides an example of anything that is genuinely ironic, and otherwise generally being contrary to expectations in a wryly amusing way. And it would need to have adjustable heights. Flexibility is very important in an ironing board, as it is for employers responding to demographic changes such as aging in their workforce and workforce marketplace.
The New Zealand workforce is greying, becoming more female, and will stop expanding by about 2030. Older workers will have a profound effect on the labour market as aging will affect the size, characteristics and possibly the productivity of the New Zealand workforce.
How old is old anyway? I heard a supposedly classic hits radio station the other day announcing a classic hit from 2005. 2005 isn’t a classic hit. 2005 is an overdue library book. Maybe that makes me old? The international survey folk looking at workforce demographics vary in their opinions. Some say 40+, some say 45+ but most of the OECD governments reckon 50+. I think being old is something we should opt into, like mailing lists. Don’t arbitrarily assign me to a category because my chronological odometer reaches a certain point. I’m old when I choose to be. That said, when I hit 45, my medical centre sent me an email offering free cholesterol and diabetes tests. There may be no such thing as a free lunch but I’ll take a free check-up any day. I wonder what they’ll give me on my 50th? My teenage son is getting me a free skydive. His heart is in the right place and hopefully my free check-up will conform that mine is too.
For every retired person in 2004, there were 5.5 workers supporting them. In 2050, that ratio will be 2.2:1. I’ll be one of the 1s (cholesterol and diabetes notwithstanding.) I’d like to get to know my 2.2 supporting workers personally. Rather than general tax money going into a general bucket and the Government doling it out as it sees fit, I’d like to personally connect with my providers of retirement income and services. Working-aged me has a picture on my fridge door of the African child I’m supporting for $1.20 a day. Letters arrive now and then advising how my $1.20 is helping build wells and provide school books. In 2050, working Madison and Troy can have a picture of non-working ninety-year-old Terry on their futuristic fridge and I’ll skype them once a month with updates on my hip replacement, an extensive list of wild opinions on a range of seemingly unconnected topics and a consistent complaint that skype and fridges were a lot better back in my day.
New Zealand currently has skill shortages. If that workforce growth slows from 2030, the skills shortages will only get worse. We can add people to the workforce by adding people – increasing the birthrate. That ain’t gonna happen. We can import people – that’s been happening forever and, to an extent, is part of the solution, although one with its own set of additional costs and problems. Or, we can upskill the people we have, including the less young ones.
I grew up on the TV show ‘The Young Ones.’ I was flatting in a student flat as Rik, Neil, Viv and Mike flatted in theirs. When actor and writer Rik Mayall died recently, it reminded me that the young ones, ironically, were in their mid 50s now.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I reckon people are people and people are different. Those with open minds and motivation and the right support, tools, feedback and practice can learn some new tricks, if not all tricks. I reckon that the old dogs who aren’t into learning new tricks probably weren’t so flash at the learning when they were younger dogs either.