Professors Concepción Galdón and Laura McDermott, IE Business School, together with healthcare consultant Bárbara Rey and City University of New York Professor and social innovator Terry Huang, research the issue of collaboration between generations, with social innovation proving a model from which for-profit companies can learn.
With kind acknowledgements to Prof. Concepción Galdón, IE Center for Social Innovation.
The demographic transition as a corporate and social challenge
As life expectancies continue to rise, the growth of older segments of the population outpaces younger segments. In many regions, the companies and the societies in which they operate are being impacted heavily in terms of economics, society and health. Companies see how significant portions of their experienced workforce approach retirement while, in parallel, younger and less experienced talent pushes to join the workforce. This talent management challenge co-exists with growing cohorts of mature clients facing their life around the retirement age full of energy and projects for the future. The inclusion of mature people between 55 and 70 years old emerges as an opportunity from both a social impact and a business management perspective. In the face of these challenges, intergenerational collaboration is a powerful lever to unleash the talent of young and mature generations at the same time.
Researching existing publications on the topic, we looked for trends on how large companies are engaging mature employees. From a high level, it appears that although many companies, thought leaders and consultancies talk about the value and best practices of intergenerational knowledge exchange, few provide a “fuller picture” as to how this has been implemented on the ground. A general theme that has emerged in early stages of our review is that the concept of “intergenerational knowledge exchange” is typically written about as a sub-category of human resource management or diversity initiatives.
In some cases, professionals have published opinion pieces about developing their own informal “mentor-mentee” relationship with colleagues from other generations. Such is the case for Airbnb employee Chip Conley, who openly spoke about his previous challenge in connecting with a predominantly millennial workforce. Conley cultivated a mentor-mentee relationship with a millennial co-worker, an exchange which helped both individuals to develop skills and competencies associated with each other’s generation (1). This type of initiative appears to create great impact among the teams, though it appears that many of these stories – at least those published more broadly and in English – come from informal or serendipitous exchanges, as opposed to being formal programs that leverage the wisdom of more senior profiles.
Previous research developed at the IE Foundation by IE’s Observatory for Demography, found that there was an increasing demand from European companies to understand how best to cater for senior talent and the later phases of their working lives (2). Subsequent research on European companies shows that there is beginning to be a higher prevalence of formalised programs for intergenerational knowledge sharing, mostly taking the form of mentorship – from senior to junior, from junior to senior or bi-directional. That being said, mentorship is not the only solution for an intergenerational strategy. In fact, there could be many more opportunities that are underexplored but which could add notable value to business and society.
Intergenerational collaboration beyond mentoring
There are other interesting strategies that leverage senior talent. For example, in other cases, we see senior-level wisdom being valued by companies in an outsourcing capacity. The Grey Matters Network (GMN) is an example of a business model that has been established to address a gap in the intergenerational knowledge market. According to an interview with GMN in the Irish Times, GMN has “recently been approached by an organisation looking for mature workers for customer-facing positions because its customer base is 50-plus and it wants their customers’ queries to be handled by staff with similar life experience (1).” Engaging senior talent, who can better understand and empathise with these customers, is an interesting strategy since those specific needs may not be obvious to a predominantly millennial workforce.
In order to look for more diverse examples of intergenerational strategies that might inspire companies, we have also mapped intergenerational social innovation projects in Spanish-speaking Iberoamerica. Social innovation projects serve as a radar for what those entrepreneurs, who are at the forefront of detecting and solving social needs, identify as problems and potential solutions to them. We have systematized the main qualities of these projects and, finally, we are abstracting from them the lessons learned that might be relevant in the corporate context. We are not suggesting a direct copy of models that work in social innovation to corporations. We are, however, taking the relevant elements of these models and offering those as inspiration for companies in search of ideas.
Looking to both sides of the ocean, there are some systematic differences. In Spanish- speaking Latin America, we found it more difficult to find intergenerational initiatives than in Europe. The explanation is twofold. On the one hand, Latin America is not undergoing as accelerated a demographic transition as in Spain, thus social innovators focus their attention on other issues. In Spain, the focus on intergenerational collaboration has emerged in a later phase of the demographic transition, whereas in the initial stages, the focus was on dependency. It seems that, in Latin America, the formal focus on intergenerational collaboration is still not a hot space for social innovators. That said, there are probably many more informal initiatives that cannot be detected due to a lack of web presence. This does not mean that intergenerational collaboration is not happening on the ground, but instead that it is not formally structured or visible. In Spain, the problem is more prevalent, there is more awareness about it and the social innovation/social economy sector is more organized and visible.
From the analysis of the projects we realize that the focus on fostering intergenerational collaboration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Of the 15 projects we identified and analyzed, 12 were founded from 2014 onwards. Another interesting element is that we found an even split of non-profit organizations and for-profit social ventures trying to make a difference by encouraging all generations to work together. In the case of for-profit social ventures, a notable trend is that very young companies, founded by young people, are targeting this kind of strategy as core to their business model. This could be connected to the social innovation background and the will to look for a higher purpose beyond monetization.
Social innovation organizations promoting intergenerational collaboration focus on different areas. We can categorize them in three main groups:
- Inclusive lifestyle, including leisure, wellness & housing.
- Work & Training, including employment, senior talent, leadership, etc
- Research & Education, generating knowledge and awareness about this matter.
Of the projects we have identified, most work towards promoting an inclusive lifestyle. The next most prevalent category is work and training, and the last is research and education.
There is a trend among social innovators to create environments (physical, social and digital) in which mature people can pursue life projects, including leisure activities and hobbies, in collaboration with younger generations. With these contexts they promote knowledge exchange that happens organically in action. In the corporate world, one example of such initiatives is one of the winners of the awards by the “Observatorio Generación y Talento” for its generational diversity programs: Danone. This program, “Dan Match”, connects employees from different ages and backgrounds to exchange knowledge and skills through volunteering as a “Time Bank”. In this model, the more hours you give, the more hours you reap for yourself. There is still a great opportunity for companies to explore other topics, such as Intergenerational Education, Intergenerational Entrepreneurship and Intergenerational Coexistence, all of which create spaces for joint projects.
The impact of unleashing mature talent on societal wellbeing
The growing number of social innovators working in this sector attests to the fact that beyond its direct impact in business, healthy ageing is an increasingly urgent global health challenge. While people are living longer, it is unclear if they are also healthier for longer or what their quality of life is like (3).There is great diversity in how people age and inequities throughout the life course directly contribute to health, social, and economic disparities in elderly adults. Elderly individuals who are the same age may have vastly different health conditions, quality of life and ability to function independently (4). The World Health Organization reports that “about 75% of the diversity of capacity and circumstance in older age is the result of cumulative impact of advantage or disadvantage across the life course (5).”
Older adults face many impediments to health and wellbeing. As the leading cause of death has shifted towards non-communicable diseases, older adults have a higher prevalence of multimorbidity (6). In the US, 61% of adults 65 years or older have multiple chronic health conditions (7). Social isolation, lack of social activity, and outdated stereotypes about ageing are also detrimental to older adults’ health and wellbeing (6,3).
This demographic shift will have many societal impacts. Work force participation, retirement and pension systems vary by region, but all have significant implications for seniors’ engagement in society and financial independence. Unpaid caregiving by family members remains the main source of long-term care for seniors, but this can have a high toll on family caregivers and impact their ability to participate in the work force (6). The increasing size and share of the older population will increase long-term care and medical care costs. Most health care systems are not prepared for this demographic shift and their services are poorly aligned to meet the needs of seniors. Many systems focus on cures or the provision of acute care, rather than supporting long-term health or functional ability. Many systems also lack sufficient care coordination, leaving patients or family members to navigate multiple health issues on their own, further exacerbating inequities (3,4).
Mature people who are employed, active and fulfilled in their life projects are a powerful asset for our societies. Indeed, healthy ageing requires a paradigm shift away from a focus on being ‘’disease free” and towards a more holistic focus on functional ability and wellbeing (3,4). We can unleash the upside of mature people’s talent and energy while, at the same time, reduce the likelihood of early dependent ageing and morbidity and mortality. In engaging with mature populations, creating employment opportunities that are adapted to their needs and supporting them in life projects, companies are not only serving their own interest but will contribute to this paradigm shift that our society needs and that mature people deserve.
- Keogh, Olive, Airbnb reaping the benefits of intergenerational workforce Irish Times, 18 October 2019.
- Puyol, Rafael, et al. Los trabajadores seniors en las empresas europeas in IE Observatorio de Demografía y Diversidad Generacional, IE. Editorial Instituto de Empresa S.L. 2019.
- World Health Organization. Word Report on Ageing and Health. Geneva, Switzerland2015.
- World Health Organization. Decade of Healthy Ageing: Baseline Report. 2021.
- World Health Organization. Ageing: Healthy ageing and functional ability. 2020; https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/ageing-healthy-ageing-and-functional-ability. Accessed January 15, 2021.
- He W, Goodkind D, Kowal P. An Aging World: 2015. United States Census Bureau;2016.
- National Institute on Aging. What Do We Know About Healthy Aging? https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-do-we-know-about-healthy-aging. Accessed January 15, 2021.
- Link up with the authors via LinkedIn: Concepción Galdón, Laura McDermott, Bárbara Rey, and Terry Huang
- Download Social Enterprise: A focus on entrepreneurship for the common good with a Foreword by Profs. Concepción Galdón and Sheila M. Cannon.
- Discover and study at the IE Center for Social Innovation, IE Business School.
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