Article: Forward to Methuselah: How older talent can rejuvenate organizations

Performance Management

Forward to Methuselah: How older talent can rejuvenate organizations

Why should corporates invest resources behind older employees, when they have well-honed processes for acquiring young talent, often at much lower cost?
Forward to Methuselah: How older talent can rejuvenate organizations

Since the turn of the millennium, one of the favorite topics at HR seminars and conclaves has been about the millennial workforce. And yet, in most developed economies, older workers are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s provocative book called 'The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity', that "outlines the challenges and intelligent choices that all of us, of any age, need to make in order to turn greater life expectancy into a gift and not a curse" has been the subject of many animated discussions in HR circles. For purposes of this column, let’s think of people between around 60 and 80 years of age as our reference group and call them WAHs (Wise, Aged Humans).

It is true, of course, that climate and the poor quality of public health-care in India will conspire to decelerate the increase in the share that the over-sixties occupy in the general working population of India. The story, however, could be strikingly different in the middle and senior levels of the organized sectors of the economy. In this part of the work-world, the availability of better health-care and climate moderation has already rendered people capable of (and frequently eager to make) productive contributions well into their seventies and even beyond. The primary responsibility of the corporate manpower planner is not to maximize job opportunities for the unemployed young workforce in the country but to choose an age-mix that will best meet the strategic competency demands of the organization. Based on this premise, there can be little doubt that many corporates will see it in their interest to engage people well beyond the artificial barrier that the age of sixty currently imposes in India. What HR practitioners need to ask themselves is, ‘What challenges does such a strategic imperative bring for them and how can they equip themselves to face it?’

The primary responsibility of the corporate manpower planner is not to maximize job opportunities for the unemployed young workforce in the country but to choose an age-mix that will best meet the strategic competency demands of the organizations

The Age Advantage

Why should corporates invest resources (and we will shortly see that considerable effort is needed for gaining significant advantages) behind older employees, when they have well-honed processes for acquiring young talent, often at much lower cost? There are several good reasons for leavening the employee population-mix with people who are older. In 2013, Ye Li, Baldassi, Johnson and Weber concluded their paper on the decision-making capabilities of different age groups with the following statement: "In our study, we found that older people were somewhat better decision-makers than younger people, partly as a result of older people’s higher levels of crystallized intelligence offsetting lower levels of fluid intelligence. Having greater experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision-making may have provided older people with another way to make good decisions." The study uses Cattell’s categorization of intelligence[1] as either fluid (the capacity to solve new problems, use logic in new situations and identify patterns) or crystallized (the ability to use learned knowledge and experience). From the corporate point of view, fluid intelligence can foster innovation and blue-ocean success while crystallized intelligence can make for informed decisions which avoid pitfalls and precipices. 

Could the sharp declines and near-death experiences faced recently by so many e-commerce and aggregator enterprises, been avoided if some WAHs had a significant say in their counsels? Or, to find an example specific to HR, what if (and this speculation is no longer hypothetical) the Indian industry can no longer give the eye-popping annual compensation increases it has grown addicted to over the last couple of decades? Wouldn’t we like to have guidance from HR practitioners who were in deciding roles when the ceiling on managerial remuneration meant we couldn’t buy our way out of people problems? 

As the country’s population ages, there is a disproportionate share of purchasing power and public opinion in the older strata of society. If we as corporates, marketers and even as employers have to understand and influence them, we cannot hope to do so at second hand. We must employ and listen to perceptive WAHs to gain insights into what and how other WAHs think. 

Broadly speaking, there are three roles WAHs can excel at:

The Merlin Role

  The trusted counselor who can see what others can’t and recall age-old remedies for new problems.

The Schlieffen Role

  The meticulous planner who can draw on a wealth of experience to exploit competitors’ weaknesses innovatively.

The Laocoon Role

  The diviner of deceit and of truly black swans who is disinterested enough to play the 'Devil’s Advocate' regardless of the risks it brings.

Pains and Pitfalls

Each of the WAH roles brings the dangers associated with their names. Some Merlin-WAHs think they must behave like youngsters. Their Nivianes soon arrive with suitable comeuppances in tow. Schlieffen-WAHs get carried away by the ingenuity of their plans, without adequately anticipating the friction and folly of circumstances and implementers in the real world. Laocoön-WAHs who predict gloom and doom too effectively and arrogantly are lucky if they are made margdarshaks. Athena’s reaction was less gentle. Using WAHs blindly, like all strong remedies, can cause considerable damage. Unless organizations are ruthlessly objective about choosing only a small, demonstrably super-competent and nurturant set of WAHs for full-fledged leadership roles, too many old fossils can clasp on to positions of power, clogging the enterprise’s promotional arteries. If this continuation of the aged, in roles they were used to, extends down the line, it can cause a severe case of arteriosclerosis for Indian industry as a whole. 

If a greater proportion of the aged remain in the same positions of influence they occupied, the pace of business and societal change will become much slower

Older talent can rejuvenate organisations

In a tradition-bound society like ours, most of the initiatives for progressive change come from its youth. If a greater proportion of the aged remain in the same positions of influence they occupied, the pace of business and societal change will become much slower.

A simple increase in the retiring age could, therefore, be extremely counter-productive. 

The HR Challenge

Having WAHs in the workforce can be a two-edged sword. It is up to the HR to ensure that only the edge providing competitive advantage is brought into play.

Strategic Manpower Planning 

Capitalizing on the WAH advantage is not worth the effort for every enterprise. Each organization needs to make a careful analysis of the extent to which WAHs can:

* Provide strategically important competencies, experiences and insights.

* Lower the costs of attrition, training, socialization, frustration-venting and full-time payments.

* Make more flexible work arrangements easier.

Once the advantage is clear, the manner in which WAH resources can best be used will also require varied answers, not least being the measures to prevent demoralization among those aspiring to progression into the full-time roles the WAHs should normally vacate. Job designs will need to undergo a huge change with task aggregations being premised on the types of knowledge, intelligence and time commitment they demand.

Attitudes and Biases 

Possibly as a reaction to 'Sethji’s chamchas', corporate India started equating old with unprofessional. Then came the highly publicized success stories of young entrepreneurial stars (e-commerce being only the latest) which blinded people to the survivorship bias that kept them focused on young people whose organizations survived while overlooking the innumerable and unpublicized cases that didn’t. Consequently, we accept age only among Priests, Politicians and Promoters. How to overcome biases must wait for a later column but clearly it is a prerequisite for effectively using WAHs.

• Reinventing Policies

In a WAH-friendly workplace, a whole raft of people policies will require to be overhauled. Most obvious are the age limits for retirement and recruitment but age eligibilities for a number of areas (e.g. fast track schemes) will require review. Flexible worktimes will need to be much less restrictive with seasonal possibilities at one end and expertise-on-tap, whenever needed, at the other. Existing benefits like health coverage will also need exclusions to be curtailed even if the WAH beneficiary has to share in the higher insurance cost. And a new crop of benefits (including top quality financial/legal sourcing at specially negotiated rates) will begin to justify themselves.

• Learning and Re-education

If people have to repeatedly renew their capabilities throughout their careers, our recruitment criteria must give weightage to people who have got a grounding in fundamental disciplines and who demonstrate the ability to tease out practical implications from first principles. 

Older talent for rejuvenating organisations

Having WAHs (Wise, Aged Humans) in the workforce can be a two-edged sword — it is up to the HR to ensure that only the edge providing competitive advantage is brought into play

While arranging re-education choices, it is important to avoid providing only light-to-digest mush for WAHs in their second or third innings. In December last year, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, wrote - How to become a Superager - in the New York Times. Here are some extracts:

"Superagers (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds….

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? … our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that … critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort..."

Don’t make learning easier for the    WAHs – you won’t be doing them a favour.

Career Choices

Careers for WAHs should include full-time, part-time and on-tap choices. Even where WAHs are used full-time, only a minority should be in the running for regular leadership roles and the criteria for choosing them and the demands made on them in terms of time, energy and results should be no lighter than for other leadership talent. 

 Career choices where WAHs really come into their own are those of Caretaker (when a steady hand is temporarily needed in a regular role), Counsellor and Coach. The test of success will be for organizations to target work demands where WAHs can make superior contributions through an architecture that doesn’t block career opportunities for younger people.

 The longer a person’s career, the greater the probability of soul-scarring experiences at work and elsewhere. Do they make it more difficult for such people to take up challenging assignments with passing years? Should we encourage these old warriors to hide their scars as they vie for the kind of roles we have been describing? I prefer to think of the 500-year-old Japanese art of Kintsugi, or 'golden joinery', which is a method of restoring broken pieces of pottery with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. This is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means 'to find beauties in broken things or old things'. The gold-filled cracks of a once-broken item are a testament to its history. Corporate warriors should be made to feel proud of their scars so that they can tap into the experiences that caused them.


Why should we make an extraordinary effort to extract the unique contributions WHAs can make to the organizations of tomorrow? In response, I can only repeat what the serpent said to Eve in Shaw’s play (Back to Methuselah) from which the title of this column is derived:

" ...I hear you say 'Why?' Always 'Why?' You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' ". 

Read full story

Topics: Performance Management, Strategic HR, Diversity

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?

Your opinion matters: Tell us how we're doing this quarter!

Selected Score :