Is generation Z set to hit a ‘grey ceiling’?

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Generation Z in the workplace

The dynamic of the workforce is changing significantly: older workers are occupying positions that they would have retired from earlier, creating a “grey ceiling” for their “generation Z” colleagues, writes Geoff Smith, MD of Experis

Generation Z has started to hit the labour market – the “first tribe of true digital natives.” With desires for more freedom, stimulating work and a sense of purpose in their job roles, these employees are driving a revolution in the workplace like never before.

At the same time, digital transformation is underpinning each and every sector across the labour market, increasing competition and forcing businesses to adapt at pace. In this uncertain working environment therefore, employers are struggling to attract, hire and retain the right people to propel their organisations forward.

Equipping the workforce for the digital era

Thanks to medical advancements and lifestyle improvements, our population is ageing. By 2026, there will be nearly 20 per cent more people over the age of 65 in the UK.

However, with life expectancy increasing, the treasury has seen its costs shoot up, as it is paying some pensioners for more years in retirement than they spent paying National Insurance as workers.

This strain could leave millions of people over the age of 75 having to continue working into later life to support themselves.

With individuals staying in work for longer, the dynamic of the workforce is changing significantly. Older workers are occupying positions that they would have retired from earlier, creating a “grey ceiling” for younger workers looking to progress up the ladder.

As a result, career development across the business is slowing and the market is becoming more stagnant. And, this could also impact growth opportunities for business overall.

Those at the beginning of their careers could become demotivated at their slowed progress while older workers could become far less enthused, as they cling to their careers out of necessity rather than desire. In addition, the mature workforce may prefer to stick to traditional ways of doing business instead of embracing transformation. 

At the same time, despite the millions of younger workers poised to enter the market, current supply doesn’t match up to the workforce demand.

New technologies, business models and challenger brands are emerging, which all require specific skill sets to deliver digital transformation. With 13.5 million vacancies to fill over the next 10 years, but only seven million school leavers to fill them, the UK economy faces a major labour shortage. How, therefore, can businesses plug the gap, not only in the short-term but also for the future?

Tapping into underutilised resources

Older workers provide a “hidden talent pool” in the labour market. Businesses have to consider tapping into this resource if they are to fill the roles they need to achieve long-term organisational growth while keeping their top talent energised and engaged.

However, there needs to be a significant cultural shift, and a change in traditional company practices and attitudes towards older generations in the workplace.

Of course, legacy systems are still incredibly important and there is a need for older generations to train younger workers in these areas to ensure knowledge isn’t lost.

But at the same time, we must move away from the idea that the over-50s are less adaptive, unwilling or incapable of learning new practices; and the key to getting this right lies in upskilling this workforce too.

The likes of B&Q, National Express, as well as Lloyds and Barclays, are leading the charge in actively debunking these myths, launching initiatives specifically designed to empower older employees and engage them in new ways of working.

Barclays, for example, is investing in upskilling older recruits through its senior apprenticeship scheme “Bolder Apprentices”. Launched last year, the aim of the scheme is to harness these individuals’ experience and knowledge to enrich the business and drive productivity gains, while equipping them with new, relevant skills for the digital working environment.

Smashing the grey ceiling

If little changes, Generation Z could hit the grey ceiling in later life too. In order to prevent this, companies should not only hire that specialist talent they need now, but also work with trusted partners and consultancies to give them strategic direction and identify the skills that will be required in two to three years’ time.

This could include re-training and upskilling older employees for other areas of the business to ensure that senior openings are available for younger employees to aim for. At the same time, enabling businesses to capitalise on growth opportunities from transformation and digital technologies will also be important.

The labour market stands on the precipice of change in the way that talent is sourced. While socio and economic factors are driving this fundamental shift, it will be down to business leaders to respond. Those that do will reap rewards, by being able to attract, engage and retain the people they need to succeed.

By increasing the flow of talent and encouraging knowledge-sharing, organisations can continue to create exciting new career opportunities for all employees and ensure their businesses can grow in the digital age.

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About author

Geoff Smith

Geoff Smith

Geoff has worked for the ManpowerGroup for over 16 years and currently has responsibility for the Experis brand across Europe

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