The Opportunity of Intergenerational Collaboration

Social innovators – whose projects often help entrepreneurs identify society’s needs – are increasingly focusing on the ageing population. Our authors draw on their research to show how these social projects can inform corporations on how to tap into the growing pool of mature, experienced talent.

Life expectancy is increasing around the world and with it a higher percentage of older people in the population. This has a direct impact on the way we all live together and, in particular, on the global economy and health sector. For example, a significant portion of the experienced workforce is now approaching retirement as younger and less experienced talent pushes to join that workforce. While this may be considered a talent management challenge, it also means there is a growing market of mature clients who are still full of energy and appetite to build projects for the future. Thus, the combination of these two demographics in the workforce – older and seasoned workers vs young and green – actually presents a fertile opportunity for intergenerational collaboration, from both a social impact and a business management perspective.

Although there is much discussion around the value and best practices of intergenerational knowledge exchange, it is commonly regulated to a sub-category of human resource management or diversity initiatives. In some cases, professionals have developed their own informal “mentor-mentee” relationship with colleagues from other generations. For example, Airbnb employee Chip Conley, who has spoken openly about his personal difficulties connecting with a predominantly millennial workforce, cultivated a bi-directional mentor-mentee relationship with a millennial co-worker. The exchange helped both individuals develop the skills and competencies associated with the others’ generation. This type of initiative has a great impact amongst teams, though it appears that many of these instances arise from informal or serendipitous exchanges as opposed to corporate programs that could fully leverage the wisdom of the more senior profiles.

Research has found an increasing demand from European companies to understand how best to cater to senior talent and those in the later phases of their working lives. Subsequent research, also from the IE Observatory of Demography and Generational Diversity, on European companies shows that there is beginning to be a higher prevalence of formalized 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 currently 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, The Grey Matters Network (GMn) was established to address this gap in the intergenerational knowledge market and to make a space in the corporate world where experience can be utilized. Take, for example, the company that approached GMn “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.” Engaging senior talent, experienced individuals who can better understand and empathize with these customers, is a strong 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 mapped intergenerational social innovation projects in Spanish-speaking Iberoamerica (forthcoming). Social innovation projects serve as a radar for what entrepreneurs – at the forefront of detecting and solving social needs – identify as problems (and their potential solutions). We have systematized the main qualities of these projects in order to determine those lessons that might be most relevant in the corporate context. We are not suggesting a direct copy of models that work in social innovation to corporations, but are offering them as inspiration for companies in need of intergenerational strategy.

Healthy ageing has become an increasingly urgent global health challenge.

In Spanish-speaking Latin America, it is more difficult to find intergenerational initiatives than in Europe. The explanation is twofold. In Spain, the initial stages of the demographic transition focused on dependency and the country has generally only come to focus on intergenerational collaboration later. It seems that, in Latin America, the formal focus on intergenerational collaboration is still not a hot space for social innovators because the region is not yet undergoing as accelerated a demographic transition as in Spain, and its social innovators are thus rightly focused on other issues. However, this does not mean that intergenerational collaboration is not happening on the ground, but that it is not formally structured or visible. Most likely, informal initiatives are simply not yet detected in Latin America due to a lack of web presence. Meanwhile in Spain, the intergenerational issue is more prevalent, awareness is higher, and the social innovation/social economy sector is more organized and visible.

The fostering of intergenerational collaboration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Of the 15 projects we analyzed, 12 were founded from 2014 onwards and the effort is an equal focus amongst non-profit organizations and for-profit social ventures. Interestingly, in the case of for-profit social ventures, a notable trend is that companies founded by young people tend to include a strategy that encourages all generations to work together as a core part of their business model. This could be connected to the social innovation background of this younger demographic and their desire for a higher purpose beyond monetization.

Social innovation organizations that promote intergenerational collaboration focus on areas that can be categorized into three main groups:

  1. Inclusive Lifestyle, including leisure, wellness, and housing
  2. Work and Training, including employment, senior talent, leadership, etc
  3. Research and Education, generating knowledge and awareness.

Of the projects we have identified in our research, most work towards promoting an inclusive lifestyle, with the next most prevalent category being work and training, and then 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 in collaboration with younger generations, and within this context they promote an organic knowledge exchange. In the corporate world, one example of such initiatives is Danone’s “Dan Match” program that connects employees from different ages and backgrounds in order to exchange knowledge and skills through volunteering as a “Time Bank.” There is still a great opportunity for companies to explore other topics that create space for joint projects, such as intergenerational education, education, and coexistence.

The impact of unleashing mature talent on societal wellbeing

The growing number of social innovators working in the senior wellbeing sector attests to the fact that, beyond its direct impact in business, healthy ageing has become an increasingly urgent global health challenge. While people are living longer, it is unclear what their quality of life is or whether they are healthier (or as healthy) for that longer period of time. There is great diversity in how people age and a variety of inequities directly contribute to health, social, and economic disparities. Elderly individuals who are the same age may have vastly different health conditions and quality of life, as well as differing ability to function independently. The World Health Organization reports that “about 75% of the diversity of capacity and circumstance in older age is the result of the cumulative impact of advantage or disadvantage across the life course.”

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. In the US, 61% of adults 65 years or older have multiple chronic health conditions. Social isolation, lack of social activity, and outdated stereotypes about ageing are likewise detrimental to older adults’ health and wellbeing.

This demographic shift will have many societal impacts. Workforce participation, as well as retirement and pension systems, vary by region but 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 often takes a toll on the family itself and the caregivers’ own ability to participate in the workforce. The increasing size of the older population will subsequently increase long-term care and medical care costs, and most health care systems are not prepared for this demographic shift, their services being poorly aligned to the needs of seniors. Many systems focus on cures or the provision of acute care, rather than long-term health or functional ability, and also lack sufficient care coordination, leaving patients and their families to navigate multiple health issues on their own. All this only serves to further exacerbate inequity.

Mature people who are employed, active, and focused on fulfilling projects are a powerful asset to society. Importantly, healthy ageing requires a paradigm shift away from a focus on being “disease free” and towards a more holistic view of functional ability and wellbeing. By acknowledging and employing the experience, talent, and energy of this mature workforce, we can improve the way businesses and organizations are run while, at the same time, reduce the likelihood of early dependent ageing, morbidity, and mortality. In engaging with mature populations and creating employment opportunities that are adapted to their needs and supporting them in their life projects, companies will thus not only help their bottom line but contribute to an essential paradigm shift – one that our society needs and that mature people deserve.


© IE Insights.


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