Unlocking the Cultural Value of Older Workers with a Mentoring Program

May 30, 2019

Mentoring program

The workforce is aging along with the population. Growing numbers of employees are embracing work well into the traditional retirement years. The extra years of earned income for older workers boosts retirement security, while working longer maintains their mental, physical, and social health.

Employers are also looking at experienced workers with greater appreciation, largely thanks to the tight labor market. “I would suggest that the ability to spot, mobilize and deploy older workers is the next biggest source of competitive advantage in the U.S. companies,” writes Tyler Cowen, economist at George Mason University, in Bloomberg.

Tapping into the intangibles of older workers

One of the best ways that managers can tap into the accumulated skills of their experienced workers is with a formal mentoring program. Older workers have the intangible skills that get the job done, the kind of knowledge not captured by organizational handbooks. Mentorships are a good way to transfer skills and knowledge to younger generations of workers.

Every company has a culture, a set of shared beliefs and behaviors that are key to getting the work done. Older workers have absorbed these cultural values over the years, and deliberately encouraging them to work as mentors with newer or less experienced workers is an efficient way to pass on company culture. Mentors can be key to furthering other critical organizational goals, especially diversity and inclusion.

Better yet, as any mentor will tell you, mentors learn much from their mentees. Learning goes both ways, and that’s a healthy dialogue for any organization with multiple generations in the workplace. This realization is also a good argument for embracing a reverse mentorship program, in which younger workers are teamed with experienced executives, usually to help the executives understand trends such as social media.

My own sense is that the true value of mentoring and reverse mentoring programs is they support a culture of cooperation and learning.

Choosing and rewarding mentors

The scholarly research is clear: Commitment by managers is key to the success of a mentoring program. Mentors and mentees can’t simply get together for an occasional coffee or meeting. Mentoring takes time and engagement. The organization needs to reward mentors for doing a good job during performance reviews. Managers should seek out opportunities to celebrate the accomplishments of mentors.

Managers also need to be thoughtful in choosing older workers to serve as mentors. Among the traits the National Mentoring Partnership lists as helpful qualities are respect for young adults, active listening skills, and the ability to see solutions and opportunities. The desire to give back with age is powerful, but it isn’t for everyone.

That said, managers might find themselves surprised at how much their experienced employees enjoy mentoring. When I was researching my book, I visited New Century Careers in Pittsburgh. The nonprofit teaches the machining trade to younger generations. The instructors I interviewed ranged in age from their 50s to their 80s. They love their craft, and several said they never considered themselves teachers. Yet they have found purpose in mentoring.

“I like the students,” says Stan Kulczyski, an 80-year-old instructor. “I have a lot to pass on. That’s why I am here.”

That’s the kind of energy any manager should want to harness.

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About The Author

Chris Farrell turned 65 in 2018 and has no plans to retire. He is the author of Purpose and a Paycheck: Finding Meaning, Money, and Happiness in the Second Half of Life (AMACOM, 2019). He is an economics commentator for Minnesota Public Radio, as well as host of its series Conversations on the Creative Economy and also a contributor at Marketplace. Farrell is a columnist for PBS Next Avenue and the Star Tribune, and has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, and Kiplinger’s.

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