Q&A: Steve Butler on why we need a National Older Workers Week

Steve Butler, from Punter Southall Aspire, spoke to Shyamantha Asokan in the lead-up to National Older Workers Week next week. He will be a key speaker on one of the panels during the week.

Steve Butler


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Steve Butler will be a panellist at our National Older Workers Week this month. He has an insight into older workers through his role as chief executive of Punter Southall Aspire, a firm that advises HR directors on pensions and benefits for employees. He is also doing a PhD that has involved researching the Covid pandemic’s impact on different generations in the workplace. 

We asked Butler why it’s important to have a National Older Workers Week, and how he manages older workers on his teams. These answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to have a National Older Workers Week?

“Because I think it’s a neglected group. Historically, certainly in the financial services sector where I work, we’ve made people redundant in their mid-50s and we’ve focused on having a younger organisation. But, with the demographics of society changing, we need to rethink how we engage with our older workers, to encourage them to stay in the workplace longer. 

I’m also a big supporter of intergenerational teams. You get the best out of people, the more diversity [there is]. It requires more management, but the results are better.”

Are employers becoming more interested in this talent pool?

“I think a good example is what’s happening in the hospitality sector – we’ve seen some research recently that said this sector is now significantly [staffed] by the over-50s. We have a situation now, post-Covid, where we’ve got a talent squeeze. There are fewer people available for roles. So organisations need to look more broadly to recruit people, rather than their traditional hunting grounds. You have to look at returners*. And you’ve got to look at that older cohort.”

* Returners are people who have taken a career break, for instance, for caring reasos, and are looking to re-enter the workforce.

What do employers need to consider, in order to attract older workers?

“You need to consider if your interview processes are appropriate for that cohort, and if there are any biases in your recruitment processes. We also need to train managers to manage a multi-generational workforce [because some people feel unsure about how to manage someone who’s older than them].

I experienced this when I was 28 and I managed a team of eight people aged 32-60. There was definitely a kind of impostor syndrome – I felt they were all looking at me as if I wasn’t up to the job. But the reality is, if they wanted to be the manager, they would have stepped forward and gone for it themselves. It’s also partly about using a management style that’s collaborative and brings people in, rather than going about it in a [top-down] way.”

Why is flexible working a deal-breaker for many older workers?

Flexible working is the cornerstone of all diversity and inclusion issues. Employers need to embed flexible working for everyone – it’s just as relevant for an older individual as it is for a returning mother, or someone with ability issues. 

You might have older individuals who help to look after their grandchildren, so they don’t want to work in the summer holidays. There are also people who are stretching out their working life because they can’t afford to retire yet. Flexibility can take many forms – compressed hours, part-time working, home-based working, term-time contracts.”

When you advise HR directors, what guidance do you give about older workers?

“[We partly talk about] shaping their benefits to match different age cohorts. Your younger generation doesn’t necessarily want [very generous] death-in-service life insurance. But your older cohort may value that, and their medical insurance, without getting too much into stereotypes. It’s about looking at the demographic of your workforce and then matching the benefits to that demographic, rather than a standard set of benefits that nobody cares about.

I’ve also been championing the midlife review, which is sitting down with your mid-career employees and saying: ‘You’ve managed your career for the first 20 years, what do you want to do with the next 20 years? What training and skills do you need?’ ”

How do you support older workers in your own teams at PSA?

“I’ve got a number of older employees where we’ve restructured their roles to accommodate changing lifestyles or requirements. [Sometimes] they want a less pressured role – they don’t want to do client work where they have to be available all the time. Or they want a bit more flexibility to look after grandchildren or do other things.

I want to keep their expertise in the business – I’ve got lots of people with industry knowledge and connections that I don’t want to lose. If I can hang on to them for two days a week or three days a week, they can add huge value.”

What do you hope we will discuss at National Older Workers Week?

“I hope we can talk about not just discarding older workers, but creating an environment that works for them. And I think [retaining them] works for businesses as well.”

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