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Value older workers more or risk them ‘quietly quitting’

CEO Circle

Value older workers more or risk them ‘quietly quitting’

Published 20 October 2022 in CEO Circle • 6 min read

The practice of “quiet quitting” – fulfilling your contractual obligations at work and no more – has apparently spread like wildfire. According to a Gallup poll, at least half of the US workforce is quietly quitting, disengaged and detached from work; in short, doing the bare minimum required by their job descriptions. Undoubtedly, the phrase is gaining attention because of its intriguing and provocative undertones, but the focus on this workplace phenomenon raises interesting points for consideration, not least the fact that much of the discussion around engagement of employees focuses on millennials and Gen Zers. It is baffling that the welfare of older, more senior employees appears to be pushed to the margins. 

Young, well-educated, flexible employees who find themselves disengaged from work can vote with their feet and look for employment elsewhere. As the years progress, employees may become tied to a certain geographic area owing to family circumstances or constrained by financial commitments, which makes any potential job move more complicated and subject to various non-negotiable conditions. If the people who have committed to a company and possibly a role for substantial periods of time, are overlooked, they will vote with their heads, and a downward spiral towards disengagement begins, to the detriment of both the organization and the wellbeing and prospects of the individual.  

Effectively “losing” employees in this way is a needless waste of resource. A YouGov poll found that two thirds of workers aged 18‒29 bought into the idea that they should only do the work that they are paid for, while only 35% of workers in their 60s felt the same, with 54% continuing to believe that they should go above and beyond what their job entails. If this stronger cultural mindset, inherent loyalty and ingrained positive attitude towards work is allowed to fade in older generations, it will be owing to unforgivable complacency on the part of organizational leadership. 

Consider the needs of the many, as well as the few 

A tremendous amount of effort is put into both attracting and retaining younger employees. While this is all to the good, in many organizations, the younger generation are in the minority of the workforce and certainly they will hold only a fraction of the knowledge and experience that resides in the business. In terms of motivation, engagement and general wellbeing, it is just as valid to consider the needs of the 50-year-old middle manager as the graduate starter.  

In some areas, those needs may well coincide. All employees will show greater loyalty to an organization that demonstrates that it cares for its employees and maintains a considered work-life balance. This is not to say that employees who want to go beyond their remits and contribute extra time and effort as part of their commitment to the job and personal development should be discouraged but, rather, that they should not feel obliged to work extra hours as a matter of course. Working for an organization that can articulate a purpose beyond simply making money can also be a hugely motivating factor for many employees, and a shared feeling of organizational purpose can make them much less likely to drop into the quiet quitter zone.  

Employers should try to understand the needs of employees at different stages of their lives and act on their findings. Younger people, thirsty for knowledge, will appreciate an organization that allows them to work in different areas, building up experience and skillsets as part of developing a rich career. In contrast, those with younger children may regard greater flexibility in terms of working hours or the option of remote working particularly important. Employees over the age of 50 may, for example, appreciate their employers’ being prepared to shift some of their base pay towards a pension scheme, helping them to plan for the next chapter of their lives. To keep employees feeling positive and motivated, it is important to understand each person as an individual, rather than treating them as a homogeneous group. 

The value of feeling valued 

In a previous role, I worked in an organization that was gathering different perspectives on some strategically challenging issues. We made a point of looking beyond young employees, ensuring that people from different age categories were contributing. We involved people from across the value chain – from sales, manufacturing, R&D, finance, and HR – and even made sure that we had a range of personality types. The exercise had a significant impact on the engagement levels of all categories of employee: The feedback showed us that it was one of the rare occasions when people across the organization felt valued, resulting in greater engagement and a positive impact on performance.  

Asking a more seasoned, experienced employee to contribute their expertise is a win-win exercise. The company benefits from knowledge that might otherwise remain untapped until it leaves the business with the employee at the end of their working life. In parallel, the employee gains a heightened sense of worth, feeling that they are valued and able to contribute. 

Passing on knowledge and values 

I recently visited a very large company that has a structured mentoring program, where older employees, including members of the executive committee, are trained to mentor new hires. It is working exceptionally well. There are positives for the organization, for the senior employee, whose knowledge is valued and, of course, for the younger individual, who benefits from the passing down of expertise. Interestingly, the mentors express a sense of value that is as great, if not greater, than that expressed by the mentees. They feel enormous pride in being highlighted as a respected person, whose knowledge and insights should be tapped into for the benefit of trainees. Teaching those that follow to become stronger than their teachers provides huge motivational energy for those who take up the opportunity.  

Teaching those that follow to become stronger than their teachers provides huge motivational energy for those who take up the opportunity

Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese technology company Alibaba, highlighted this this when he commented on the different focus areas for individuals at different life stages. Speaking to a group at the World Economic Forum, Ma said that those in their twenties should “follow a good boss [and] join a good company to learn how to do things properly”. The thirties were for trying new things, while the forties were for concentrating on individual strengths. “When you are 50 to 60 years old, spend time training and developing young people, the next generation.” 

This is training in its broadest sense. It does not have to relate to technical, skills-based knowledge, but can extend to leadership development and encompass learning about corporate culture. This kind of personal, highly relevant interaction between the executive and the new recruits who will hope one day to replace them can have immense impact and greatly reduce the risk of developing quiet quitters. The existence of a training and mentoring program also acts as a marker, internally and externally, of the value an organization places on diversity and legacy.  

Know your employees 

There are many companies actively seeking to gauge and act on engagement levels through surveys and polls. The success of these endeavors will come down to granularity of data. The best companies will look at engagement levels based on age, gender, nationality, and level of seniority in the organization. While many organizations have grasped the importance of engaging with the customer on their own terms, gathering as much information about them as possible and then tailoring products and services to their needs, few apply this level of understanding to their own employees. The more precise the analysis of the workforce, within legal and consensual boundaries, and the greater the positive intention of acting on those findings, the less quiet quitters there will be in the ranks. 

One slightly dangerous idea emanating from today’s discussions is that switching off at work, simply doing the hours required and looking to home life for greater fulfillment, is the means of achieving a work-life balance. It is highly unlikely, given the proportion of time committed to work, that spending your days simply passing muster will lead to personal fulfillment and contentment. In discussions around engagement and work-life balance, we should remember that this is not simply a question of reducing the hours worked. It is about making those hours as stimulating, productive and valuable as possible – for employer and employee. Any strategy that neglects this is sure to see workers of all ages mentally checking out.

Authors

Lars Häggström

Lars Häggström

Senior Adviser, IMD Business School

Lars Häggström is a CBS Executive faculty member and an Executive in Residence at IMD, while at the same time heading up Enable Performance, a consulting company focusing on driving large-scale change in global organizations.

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