Age, a Coaching topic
Since the pioneering time of Sir John Whitmore “Coaching for Performance”, coaching industry has gained relevance in today’s professional world, and it is worth an estimated $27.5 billion by 2026. While the popularity of coaching continues to grow, so does the evidence supporting its efficacy.
Facing variety of standards and field of application, the concept underlying this document is based under the lens of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) definitions and principles. Although not a “New kid on the Block” anymore, coaching still has space to grow and spread throughout all layers of organizations and untouched professionals, releasing its value creation and growth partnership in benefit of any role or employee profile.
Yet, a focus will be made on the specific case of older workers, the result of a forewarned aging workforce trend that started to emerge at the end of last century and that is now self-imposing in corporate agenda as much than in society in general.
Facing a major increase in the number and proportion of older workers, a direct consequence of lower fertility rates and longer healthy lives among other variables, the assumption of a continuous growing and available mass of outnumbered younger workers for replacing older ones becomes unrealistic. We are reaching a point where the traditional phased model inherited from XIX century societies – education, work and then retirement by 60’s – must adapt to today’s outlook.
Companies are already experiencing a harsh and penalizing “Talent war” that requires innovative people attraction strategies; social unrest in some countries; or substantial concerns on future customers purchasing power regarding the unsustainability of pension policies funding designed to provide adequate incomes in old age. Therefore, this dissertation subject might become progressively more appealing for companies in their search for productivity and sustainable wealth, by maximizing people’s full potential as well as by authentically committing toward Diversity and ESG principles.
As societies age, most countries are putting into place policies that extend working life. The aim of these policies is mainly to sustain pension systems. Pushing back the legal age of retirement and increasing the length of time that contributions must be paid to be eligible for a full pension are common measures. Workers are, therefore, expected to remain longer in the labour market.
At the same time, the nature of employment is changing. The globalization of economies is accompanied by a decline in manufacturing and clerical jobs and by an increase in automation and highly technical roles. Labour markets demand skilled workers who can adapt to changing work practices. New technologies that are introduced in the workplace can render certain jobs redundant, and employees are increasingly required to be more flexible in moving between jobs, redefining their professional career path while regularly living in “Transitions”.
Though, remaining active, up-to-date, and being perceived that way, is generally shown with sufficient evidence to be a real challenge especially for older professionals as much as for all parties involved. From disengaged, passive or powerless feeling employees themselves, a typical Karpman Drama victim role, to reluctant companies hiring cultures coping with the “too old to be creative or dynamic”, or ultimately to society patterns or dogmas, we are confronted to rooted stereotypes and bias, more important training investment requirements or the natural inertia of people and organizations. Without forgetting to mention the required flexibility to adjust personal needs and commitments along lives, when people have to deal with any family responsibilities or health-related conditions.
This reflection is aiming to illustrate how impactful this phenomenon is, with some punctual references to the local Portuguese context, and to demonstrate the benefits of Coaching in raising opportunities for this aging workforce, empowering them in finding their own answers while successfully navigating a world of major Changes.
Powerful Aging Workforce Trends
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pace of population ageing is much faster than in the past.
In 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older outnumbered children younger than 5 years. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%. (2.1 billion). By 2050 more than a third of the entire world’s population will be above the age of 50.
Although a worldwide occurrence, not limited to the so-called developed countries, the pace of this trend differs, with some countries still at the early stages and others more advanced. Some Regions have experienced an acceleration in population ageing, such as East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong) and Southern Europe (Italy, Greece Spain, and Portugal) where the share of people aged 65 or older will represent between 35 to 40% of the entire population by 2050.
The main reasons for this demographic shift are mostly anchored in the Fertility Problem and new Family and Social standards such as in Europe where, according to the world Bank, the number of births per woman has fallen to 1.53 (2.3 for the World) vs 2.57 in 1960 (4,7 for the World). Portugal is especially marked by this shift, from a high fertility rate above 3 in 1962 to below 1,4 now and just above countries like China who suffers from the insane one-child nation experiment. When checking these numbers, it naturally came to my mind my own family i.e. my grandparents’ generation counted each 10 brothers, for my parents they were 3 each, I have a sister and, although, I have myself two daughters, I see now couples of my age generally with no or only 1 child.
On the other side, the advance in healthcare has contributed to extend longevity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global average life expectancy increased by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016, and global life expectancy at birth in 2016 was 74.2 years for women and 69.8 years for men.
Aside demographic factors, financial and social attributes are playing an important role in this work longevity. For Gen-X and Baby Boomers, typically focused on achieving retirement as early as possible, a lack of a proper pension plan or retirement savings is now forcing more people over 60 to continue to work. Simply because they cannot afford to retire, for them or for continuing to support their dependents and relatives. Then, agreeing it or not, many people enjoy the social aspects of having a job and they like to feel productive. In studies, while Millennials are looking for ‘purpose’ in their jobs and embracing sabbaticals even with the prospect of retiring beyond 70, Baby Boomers simply want to feel “productive” and socially active.
Consequently, job market has followed and progressively registered a similar ageing demographic shift.
Between 1990, in OCDE countries, people between 15 and 24 registered a decrease of their employment ratio from 49% to 41% (Portugal from 51% to 25%, related to higher education levels). This employment ratio remained stable for people between 25 and 55 (Portugal increase from 77% to 85% was exclusively due to women massive and later entry into job market). Then, for people between 55 and 64, this ratio significantly increased from 48% to 61% (similar in Portugal) independently to gender factors. It suggests that further to its increase among general population, older people will also have more presence in working population. In fact, long-term trend shows that the employment rate for those aged 55-64 years has been on an upward trajectory and is less prone to fluctuations.
So, aging population is reshaping the workforce with far-reaching consequences to individuals, companies, and society. But if this trend is de facto being observed, what is the issue that underlies along this paper on Coaching? Well, it is the untapped potential and manners to overcome challenges and barriers on the way to individual’s desired state.
No Country for Old Men
Certainly, age on a biological level, determines the molecular and cellular damage over time leading to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity. But these changes are neither linear nor consistent, and they are only loosely associated with a person’s age in years. The diversity seen in older age suggests our lives go beyond following a rigid biological or genetic script and are often associated with physical, social, and mental environments as well as personal characteristics such as life habits (sleep, dietary) or transitions on psychological or social level (death of relatives). Furthermore, while we know that the brain is not fully developed by 25 or even 30 as some argue, it retains its ability to learn and adjust to new ideas and stimuli well into its 70s – a concept called Neuroplasticity.
In other words, there is no typical old person.
However, age stigmata reigns and is at the heart of our cultural codes. Such negative representations of later life and old age undermine the significant contribution that older people can make to society.
Especially in Western societies as its Greco-Latin heritage, the Cult of youth imposes. We have a horror of ageing and death. It reflects decrepitude. We feel obsolete or powerless. we grasp at any superficial signs of youthfulness, making every effort to preserve our outer appearance, to keep looking young and attractive, with obsession with clothes, dieting or cosmetics.
The individual’s own concerns are reinforced by peers and employers. Many organizations pride themselves on promoting a youth culture, with the belief that it is synonymous with innovation and dynamism, hoping to raise their attractiveness and employee branding too.
Recently, during a conference on Innovation I participated in, the presenter claimed loudly how some anthropologic heritage contributed to making so few words in the marketing advertiser’s dictionary to have the alluring effect of “New” for humans. It simply jumps off the shelf (or out of the web browser) at the consumer and hints that something exciting, innovative, and maybe even trendsetting can be discovered just by reading further, learning more, clicking here, or calling now. This is new, so this must be better. We see the same in politics.
Therefore, this youth culture inevitably leads to a preference for hiring and valuing younger professionals over more experienced ones. This blind belief has negative effects as much in hiring managers as it has in older professionals and candidates themselves, doubting their own potential and capabilities. So, the word is not age but fear, fear of not being good enough. And a perfect field to crop imposter syndrome and Dunning–Kruger effect.
And when looking at the start-up and technological environment, this acclaimed paradise of “unicorns” & innovation, it is even more significant. However, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who compiled records for more than 2.5 million entrepreneurs who founded businesses in the United States since the 1970s, the average entrepreneurial age was 45 across all ventures. The study revealed that founders were “‘especially successful when starting businesses in middle age or beyond”, while young founders appeared to be “‘disadvantaged” by their age. Even in some areas of the technology industry, such as UX design, designers over 40 are always perceived better than younger designers — even if the designer starts late in life via a career change. And good transitions are at the heart of coaching practice!
More experienced professionals bring with them a wealth of knowledge, experience in managing times of adversity, skills to identify and solve problems by a more holistic thinking and improved emotional intelligence. A set of past successful approaches that they can replicate in much more future scenarios.
Actually, this liaises with some recommended questions to ask during coaching sessions, leveraging that successful past to project the client into future actions.
- What lessons do you plan to apply in future scenarios based on your past experiences in similar situations?
- How do you envision addressing similar challenges in the future
- If you could start over again, what would you do differently?
However, many companies insistently believe that what more senior professionals bring with them is essentially rigid work habits, connoted “vices”, while younger professionals are more flexible in adapting to the organization’s demands. This assumption can lead to underutilizing experienced talent and underestimating their skills, taking suboptimal decisions.
Definitely, we are not denying one of the main factors that contributes to age discrimination and that is ongoing technological developments. Older people are often viewed with prejudice, considered unprepared or lacking the necessary knowledge to deal with the most recent technologies adopted by organizations. As we foresee, the context brings an urgent need to increase the availability of training at the workplace and academy, particularly in relation to digitalization, AI, and new technological developments, so as to enable older workers, and not only them but all professionals, to remain active among the workforces.
After the search for novelty, the cost prioritization approach in companies, where hiring young people less experienced is seen as a more economical option, due to falling into lower salary ranges or having lower sickness rates than experienced people. One response to such a situation is generally lay off or premature retirement of older workers. However, targeted measures, including coaching, to promote the health, skills or motivation of older employees might ultimately be more profitable.
As per other projects, it would be advised to calculate the Net Present Value (NPV) of such decisions that generally engages significant financial amounts in comparison to investing in coaching and retention of an experienced employee.
Along with legislatives and regulatory changes, some companies try to combat age discrimination by placing more experienced professionals in complementary and support roles. However, this approach does not tackle the problem head-on and, in fact, may perpetuate a sort of discrimination by limiting these professionals’ opportunities for development and growth.
For candidates to receive a coaching certification under ICF code of ethics, it is imperative to contribute to reduce that form of discrimination. It is expected from coaches to commit to “valuing the unique talents, insights, and experiences that every client brings to the world and influence our stakeholders to reflect on our blind spots and be aware of opportunities for improvement”.
Instead of focusing on the age of professionals, we must support their skills development and help them to understand (self-awareness) and show the value they can add to organizations. Although many companies have already established Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments, one crucial dimension often overlooked is age.
Ultimately, what matters is the value a professional can add, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. To achieve business success and sustainability, it is essential that organizations promote a truly diverse and inclusive work environment that values experience and generational diversity. It is the mission of all companies to review their strategies and policies to eliminate age discrimination and promote the development of senior talent.
This is part of the fundamental Lifelong learning culture we aim to achieve in sustainable ageing societies. It has a central role in promoting well-being and a good quality of life in old age, a countering-effect to our ultimate biological track, and above all in helping older adults to realize their full potential and to age actively. This is where Coaching contributes to maximizing human capital.
A Systematic Safe Space for Reflection and Exploration on Ageing Well
According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Coaching is the partnering with Clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. It is supported by Core values that ensure professional and personal conduct is consistently aligned with.
Professionalism: We commit to a coaching mindset and professional quality that encompasses responsibility, respect, integrity, competence, and excellence.
Collaboration: We commit to develop social connection and community building.
Humanity: We commit to being humane, kind, compassionate and respectful toward others.
Equity: We commit to use a coaching mindset to explore and understand the needs of others so we can practice equitable processes at all times that create equality for all
On practical terms, ICF has also reviewed the list of Competencies that reflect the key elements of its coaching practice model and serve as a robust backbone and milestones for any sessions.
By upholding practical guidance and aspirational Core Values, ICF aspire making coaching an integral part of a thriving society where global advancement of the coaching profession serve to empower the world.
A longer life brings with it opportunities, not only for older people and their families, but also for societies. Additional years provide the chance to pursue new activities such as further education, a new career, or a long-neglected passion. Older people also contribute in many ways to their families and communities.
Let’s focus on the positive employment perspective for this workforce.
First, according to the Centre for Ageing Better, studies are pointing out that people in their 50s and 60s do not necessarily want or see the benefit of a coach at their age. At the same time, often, older employees or jobseekers do not know how to identify their own abilities, how to sell their skills or have confidence. Ultimately, we must assume that individuals may feel insecure or ashamed to embrace coaching at a more senior age, looking at exposing themselves and their personal inner debates as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Somehow, wrongly understanding this process as a way “to solve a problem” represents a psychological barrier.
This is an important role for companies to clarify and positively promote a correct understanding of coaching concept and practice and to provide inspiring role models e.g. enrolling high performers, younger profiles and top leadership positions of the company as clients in coaching processes.
By establishing its foundation on ethical practice (Competency 1), supported by formal agreement (Competency 3), coaches ensure confidentiality with client information and clarify their role, with distinctions between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy, and other support professions. They also cultivate a relationship of mutual respect and trust (competence 4), neutralizing any initial resistance.
A coach is naturally sensitive to clients’ identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs, which makes us remember that people over 50s or 60s are not a homogenous group and that everyone will have their own experiences and challenges to address. The flexible and client-centred answer provided by a coach who embodies a right Coaching mindset (Competencies 2 & 4) reinforces the applicability toward the heterogeneity of situations. This is not telling people what to do or an already-built solution for them to apply, a way especially unproductive for more experienced professionals. It is to have those clients discovering new learnings and customized tracks at a stage where they may feel stuck within their career and job environment. It is facilitating insights and learning to design their next step with autonomy (Competencies 7 & 8).
Effective coaching can be game-changing for individuals’ lives. It helps them understand personal needs and aspirations with regards to planning towards an end goal (Competency 3) that recognizes these and by considering not just their work ambitions but also their physical health, emotional wellbeing, family, and social life. The use of tools, such as the Wheel of life, revealed an interesting starting point, by covering the large if not the full extent of our lives, its interconnections and the “now” moment.
Then, the realistic and relevant goal setting approach of Coaching, by contracting and consistently re-contracting, ensures the individual in relating his decisions back to the desired state and excluding things not relevant to the ultimate goal in their personal journey. This planning facilitates transitions between jobs situations as well as to retirement, less of a ‘cliff edge’ break between working and not working.
Coaching for a Mid Life Career Review
Inspired on some Coaching recommendations for embarking older workers that could integrate regular career reviews in companies.
Coaching is about understanding your past and present, which are the foundations upon which your future aspirations are built.
- Life Purpose and Values Alignment:
Coaches can assist older employees in exploring their life purpose and aligning their career choices with personal values.
Example: A coach working with a professional in their 60s to transition into a socially impactful role, aligning their career with a sense of purpose.
- Work-Life Balance and Well-being:
Coaches can help older workers strike a balance between work and personal life, focusing on overall well-being and trade-offs.
Example: A coach supporting a professional nearing retirement in creating a phased transition plan that allows for reduced work hours, knowledge transfer and increased personal pursuits.
- Coping with Future Retirement:
Coaches can provide guidance on coping with the psychological and emotional aspects of retirement, ensuring a smooth transition.
Example: As in outplacement, a coach assisting a retiree in developing a post-retirement plan that includes meaningful activities, hobbies, and opportunities for continued personal growth. All of these facilitate their exit, protecting company reputation and raising employee satisfactions.
It can challenge internalized ageism mindset and bias previously mentioned, by helping people see themselves as having valuable skills and experience that can still add to a workplace. Coaching builds on a positive outlook and self-confidence. Identifying practical, transferable skills from any previous employment and even their life outside work – including skills outside of formal qualifications, is a way to raise belief in their worth.
- Identifying Transferable Skills:
Coaches can assist older employees in identifying and recognizing the wealth of transferable skills they have acquired over their careers.
Example: A coach helping a senior professional transitioning from a traditional role to a new position by highlighting skills like project management, problem-solving, and adaptability.
- Closing Skill Gaps:
Coaches can work with older employees to identify any gaps in their skill set that would improve employability and boost career progression.
Example: A coach helping an older employee acquire digital literacy skills necessary for contemporary workplaces through targeted training and mentorship.
- Leveraging Experience:
Coaches can guide older workers in leveraging their extensive experience to become mentors or advisors within their organizations.
Example: A coach helping a senior executive transition from an operational role to a strategic advisory position, utilizing their industry knowledge and network.
Whereas a desire to a more satisfying work or acknowledging a change to come, preparation appears to be a crucial starting point.
- Navigating Change:
Coaches can provide support in navigating the emotional and practical aspects of career transitions, helping older employees embrace change.
Example: A coach assisting a professional in their 50s transitioning from a long-term corporate role to entrepreneurship, addressing fears and uncertainties associated with the shift.
- Revised aspirations:
Coaches can support clients to increase awareness on life expectancy, and its implications for work, realistically reviewing their aspirations and how these might change over the coming decade.
Example: A coach helping an employee to reassess how feasible are his aspirations at this stage of his life when comparing his career track with the required experience and qualifications for a new job or management position.
- Building a New Professional Identity:
Coaches can work with older employees to redefine their professional identity in a new career phase.
Example: A coach helping a retiree explore encore careers, emphasizing personal values and interests to shape a fulfilling post-retirement professional identity.
- Networking and Job Search Strategies:
Coaches can help older workers develop effective networking and job search strategies in a new job market.
Example: A coach guiding a senior professional on utilizing online platforms, refining their LinkedIn profile, and networking to explore new career opportunities. Job search may have changed substantially since the last time the person was looking for a job.
In the last decades, the fruits of uncontainable demographics, the average working life in developed countries has changed drastically. Once-predictable career patterns have shifted dramatically, re-drawing the traditional route of education, work, and retirement.
Some people are working longer because they find themselves ill-prepared for retirement, while others continue because they find purpose in their jobs. Still, others leave the workforce early, due to disability, rooted biases or simply skills obsolescence.
Recognizing that Individuals have first the responsibility to keep themselves employable, employers also have a responsibility to provide opportunities for older workers to remain on the job, to learn and to grow, to not limit recruiting only to younger workers, and to implement policies and procedures that are fair and address the needs of all employees, regardless of age.
Beyond prioritizing upskilling and reskilling investments, the need for more appropriate and unlocking development opportunities should also pass by promoting and enlarging coaching practice to these professionals. It would help aging workers become more resilient and adaptable in the face of change, discouraging premature retirement and reducing their underemployment, a loss out on an enormous asset that their professional experience may represent for companies.
Coaching under the supervision of ICF standards is definitively an effective people-centred solution that deserves to be fostered as a strategic talent development strategy and an authentic social responsibility commitment.
Nevertheless, as there are no simple solutions to complex problems, efforts must be made to avoid repeating some of the investment issues in leadership training. The basics of Coaching seem to address main recommendations but further methods for evaluating the effectiveness of coaching programs for aging workers – KPI and success stories – would be welcomed.
Finally, our reflection also opens the door for considering new developments in conversational AI and socially assistive robots that can be applied to support workers’ active and healthy ageing. A desired and cost-efficient increase in coaching practice may also face the constraint of ageing professional coaches.