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Phil O’Reilly on older workers

Liam Butler interviews Business NZ Chief Executive Phil O’Reilly.

20 January 2015

Liam Butler

Phil, how can the golden age worker continue to enjoy being part of the workplace?

Projections show older people will be a bigger force in the economy in coming years.Our fairly modest birth rate means in the near future our population will have a smaller share of younger people and larger share of older people.

How will this play out in the workforce? It will mean businesses will be keen to hold on to older workers with relevant skills who perform highly.

It will mean more older people applying for jobs - and getting them - and continuing to contribute to the workplace and the economy.

It will mean everyone getting used to a more age-diverse workforce. For those of us who are middle aged or older, there are a few things to keep in mind to help us continue to be a valued part of the workforce. The most important is skills. Businesses are chronically undersupplied with skills specific to their workplace. Someone who keeps updating their skills - the ones needed by employers - will continue to be valued at work. We can continue updating our skills in many ways - by undertaking training, by reading, researching and keeping an interest in developments in our area of work, and by choosing projects or assignments in our current work that require us to learn valuable new skills.

Updating skills is often a state of mind more than anything else.

Being okay with asking for help in learning things is important. There's a give and take attitude to learning that is very prevalent in the workplace today and most of us are learning off each other most of the time. You see it a lot in relation to computer and online skills. Here the skill requirements are changing so rapidly that most of us are in a constant state of learning.

Perhaps the best thing an older person could do would be to get used to asking for help. There's no shame in it - it's a mark of pride to be actively seeking skills. We should get used to jotting down the things we learn, and looking at the notes a lot. It takes time to learn new things so we should practise frequently to let them sink in.

Another requirement for continued success in the workplace is getting along with people. ‘People strengths' - patience, helpfulness, courtesy and respect - are needed to achieve work goals in every workplace. And rather than giving respect only to the boss, it's needed for everyone.

One of the biggest changes I have noticed over recent years is that hierarchies have become flattened. These days it's not so much that the boss is on top and the workers underneath. In the past, the focus at work used to be mostly on the boss - the main objective of your work used to be for him (it was usually a ‘him'). But these days the focus is less on the boss and more on the company's purpose and its customers. In a successful workplace both you and the boss will be totally focused on these.

Being passionate about your company's purpose and its customers is a sure way to continue to add value to your workplace. I believe that a key thing holding back older workers from enjoying success in the workplace is undervaluing their own experience. Sometimes it may feel that younger colleagues have all the answers. It can feel as if your contribution to the workplace is somehow less valuable than that of younger workmates. But the experience that an older person has accumulated through life is enormously valuable. It can bring qualities such as self-discipline, good judgment, tolerance, perseverance and empathy.These qualities are critically needed at work. Sometimes they can be the key determinant of success or failure of an enterprise.

The golden age worker has much to be proud of. The next few years will see many more seniors continuing to enjoy being part of the workforce. Concentrating on our skills, people strengths, and the purpose and customers of our workplace will help us continue to achieve satisfaction and success at work.

About Phil O'Reilly.

Phil O'Reilly is Chief Executive of BusinessNZ, New Zealand's largest business advocacy group, representing thousands of businesses of all sizes.

Phil and his Wellington-based team work with companies, organisations and political and other decision makers, advocating for New Zealand's success through sustainable economic growth.

Phil regularly meets with Ministers and Members of Parliament, making submissions to Government and community groups, and is in daily contact with media representing the goals of business for a more successful New Zealand.

His background includes industrial advocacy and leadership roles in banking, publishing and media.

He is Chair of the Board of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD and is New Zealand's employer delegate to the International Labour Conference.

In New Zealand Phil chaired the Green Growth Advisory Group, and is Chair or Member of several public and private advisory boards in areas as diverse as manufacturing, exports, tertiary education, trade, tax, retirement, R&D, innovation, employment, child poverty, health & safety, skills, government procurement and sustainable business.


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