Motivating Older Workers

September 15, 2016 © Copyright Glomacs


“How are you doing Geoff?” I ask of my soon-to-retire colleague. “Oh not bad Tom – 4 months, 26 days and … err… 3hours, 26 minutes until my retirement” he replied.

My heart sank. What a waste I thought. Here was a really good company employee who was just biding his time until he picked up his gold watch/certificate of 38 years employment/vouchers for a well-known department store. How long had he been thinking of this? How long had his mind been on his leaving date and not on his contribution at work?

And that got me wondering how many company employees in the twilight of their career become unproductive and even infect the productivity of otherwise well-motivated colleagues around them? More to the point, what are organisations doing about this?

Much recent organisational literature has focused on how to manage and motivate ‘Millennials’ or ‘Generation X, Y or Z’. Little attention has been given to older workers and how we can keep them motivated and productive.

In fact in many countries older workers are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. In the U.S.A. the number of individuals aged 65 or older will increase by about 66% between now and 2035.

Ignoring the experience of these employees is wasteful to both for the company and the economy as a whole.

Here are three quick ideas for how we can address this situation:

  • Don’t pretend people like Geoff aren’t thinking like this. Have a conversation with them and get them to talk about how they see their remaining time with the company. Ask them how they can be happy and productive during their remaining time with you.
  • Train older employees in mentoring skills and assign them to a number of younger new entrants.
  • Ask them to lead new corporate social responsibility initiatives – charity projects, skills transfers – perhaps even designing and leading one themselves.

Daniel Pink has written that in modern organisations employees are motivated primarily by three factors; Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose:

Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.

Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Here are some examples of how we can use each factor to re-motivate older workers.


Allow them to lead a project or follow a dream they may have never had the chance to pursue because ‘the day job’ always got in the way. This also means giving them permission and encouragement to assemble their own small team to assist. In fact a number of great companies such as Google and 3M encourage ALL of their employees to spend a percentage of their time on a personal project – with the caveat that they should aim to have a definite output.


Many older workers have finely developed skills and knowledge. Why not give them the opportunity to pass these on to new employees, graduates, apprentices. Give them the freedom and encouragement to run seminars, teach-ins and formal training. Allowing such knowledge, skills and even wisdom to simply walk out the company door is a terrible waste. It’s time to really capitalise on the investment the company has made in them over the years and let them feel good about paying it back!


 Of course allowing people to display their mastery in itself gives meaning and purpose.  Additionally you may wish to engage the employee in the simple MPS process developed by Dr Ben-Shahar in his book ‘Happier’ as a way to seek out jobs, projects, and tasks that challenge and engage us. With the MPS process ask them three crucial questions:

  • What gives you Meaning?
  • What gives you Pleasure?
  • What are your Strengths?

Whichever approach you use to (re-) engage the employee remember true motivation comes from within. Resist the temptation to replace ignoring their current lack of motivation with YOUR solution (no matter how good you feel it is!). Have the conversation about their situation and motivation, listen to their ideas, explore the opportunities and let them run with one that they feel will engage them best.


Daniel Pink (2011), Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Tal Ben-Shahar, (2007) Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment

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