Older workers: adding value

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Scientific interpretation

Due to the aging of today’s workers, many organizations will experience major demographic declines over the next 20 years, which could create a labour shortage. Because of an increase in life expectancy, combined with a gradual extension to what was traditionally considered the age of retirement at 65, older workers are a growing proportion of the current labour force. Many organizations are not ready to deal with or benefit from this demographic shift, and some are building barriers that impede the engagement and retention of these workers. How, therefore, to make the best of this situation?

To answer this question, we interpreted the study of Heisler and Bandow, published in 2018, which aimed to identify various ways that organizations can maintain engagement and promote retention of older workers in order to meet labour needs and improve organizational performance.

Expert adviser:

Diane-Gabrielle TREMBLAY, professor, École des sciences de l’administration (ESA) – Université TÉLUQ


Étienne FOUQUET, doctoral researcher, Université de Sherbrooke

RACHÈLE HÉBERT, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

JOSÉE CHARBONNEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.


Engagement is the emotional bond that a worker develops for their colleagues, their work and the organization. It promotes retention and gives workers a reason to come to work every day.

The authors highlight various work characteristics to consider in order to cultivate worker engagement, such as variety of skills, meaning of the job, autonomy and feedback:

  • Variety of skills refers to the extent to which the job allows the worker to use a range of skills they possess.
  • Identification and meaning of the job refer to the perceived importance of the work accomplished (the meaning placed on the work done).
  • Autonomy refers to the amount of freedom the worker is given to carry out their work/duties.
  • Feedback refers to information received about the results of the work done. This allows the worker to evaluate their effectiveness in their effort-performance relationship.

Work engagement does not happen at the end of a career, but throughout a career. For this reason, there should be a focus on maintaining and improving the engagement of older workers.


7 factors showing why older workers want to postpone traditional retirement age

The table below outlines the 7 factors proposed by the authors that justify the need to work longer.


Possible interpretations

Staying active

  • Some older workers want to stay physically and mentally active.
  • Those who stay active tend to be in better health.

Need for social interaction

  • Many older workers enjoy the camaraderie of their colleagues.
  • For many, work offers a sense of fraternity, community and belonging that they will not have in retirement.
  • For some, there is also a perception that social inclusion at work means higher status and avoids them being seen as “lazy.”

The meaning of work in itself

  • Some older workers want to keep working simply because they like the work and they like what they’re doing.
  • Working longer is a lifestyle choice that is more motivating than recreational activities during retirement.

Personal development

  • Some older workers want to start a new and different career.
  • This can involve being transferred to a new section or department in the organization, and can include a change in job title.
  • Some older workers simply want to continue learning.

Giving back

  • Feeling needed and wanting to help others is important for some older workers.
  • Those who are less likely to have children at home see work as an opportunity to be useful and feel needed.

Financial need

  • To a lesser extent, the need for financial security can help to explain why some workers keep working when they are older. This is especially the case in the United States, as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, economic fluctuations and the increased cost of living. However, financial need is generally not a major concern for older workers; before they mention financial concerns, most say that they keep working out of a need to stay active, for personal development, to contribute to society and to share their knowledge with younger workers.

Need for health coverage

  • To a lesser extent, the need for health coverage can be a reason to keep working when they are older. This is especially the case in the United States, for example, where health coverage is private and provided by the employer. It is less the case in Canada, for example, because of public health insurance.


The authors propose simple and practical actions to maintain engagement and promote the retention of older workers.

Action step

Specific ideas

Promote retention

Establish flexible work arrangements

  • Offer possibilities for phased retirement, telework, flexible hours, part-time work, seasonal work.

Create a customized work environment

  • Review benefits plans to ensure they offer coverage that applies equally to older workers (health coverage, for example, can vary based on age; the same applies to retirement savings plans).
  • Offer workers the option to make different levels of salary contributions so they can put more money towards retirement or to health care than towards other benefits.
  • Review internal policies and practices that affect older workers: workforce planning based on age.
  • Promote an inclusive culture and organize training on diversity to reduce ageism and related stereotypes.
  • Set up wellness programs to help maintain physical and mental well-being.
  • If the work is physically demanding, promote workstation ergonomics and job characteristics to adapt them to the physical abilities of older workers

Maintain engagement

Promote autonomy

  • Identify “autonomous” employment opportunities for retired workers (such as serving as consultants or independent contractors).
  • Encourage older workers to use their experience in significant ways to achieve the organization’s objectives and perform other related tasks.
  • Offer flexible work environments that allow older workers to fulfill their professional responsibilities at their own pace.

Vary work tasks

  • Offer professional development opportunities (such as training) and new work experiences.
  • Create intergenerational work groups with team tasks.
  • Create work assignments geared to solving real organizational problems.

Value experience and expertise

  • Take advantage of existing knowledge and experience through mentoring and developing knowledge transfer initiatives.
  • Go through older workers to build a bridge between old and new ways of doing things.
  • Identify and solve real problems as an organization by mobilizing older workers for key jobs for the success of the organization

Give feedback

  • Offer communication and recognition that show appreciation and respect for experience.
  • Provide positive feedback regarding job security.

Build confidence

  • Confidence is built on the managers’ availability, their skills, whether their decisions match their actions, maintaining confidentiality, impartial treatment of all workers, and showing integrity and openness.
  • Good leaders create environments that promote work relationships in which people work together effectively to achieve common goals.
  • Confidence involves creating conditions in which workers feel that their colleagues care about their respective interests.


Because the labour market in developed countries is primarily characterized by a service economy, older workers are valuable to organizations, because over the years they have accumulated solid work experience and a high degree of effectiveness in their work.

However, one must be cautious before concluding that they have trouble keeping up and that they need to reduce their workload. This hasty conclusion too often leads to ineffective retention strategies. As mentioned, older workers seem much less interested in staying at work for financial and health reasons than to remain active, to contribute to society and to continue developing. Their engagement changes over time, but it is not new.

Rather, we see that they are looking to take the time they need to do the job well and that they are best at prioritizing their tasks. For this reason, it is best to offer flexibility in work, such as flexible hours or telework, to encourage them to keep working. This allows them to benefit more from their personal life while also enjoying the benefits that work brings.



Tremblay, D.-G., Fouquet, E., Hébert, R., Charbonneau, J. (2018). Older workers: adding value. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com


Heisler, W. & Bandow, D. (2018). Retaining and engaging older workers: A solution to worker shortages in the US. Business Horizons, 61(3), 421-430.

Also available at global-watch.com

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton