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Greying work force will challenge corporate leaders

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

It's one of those good problems.

Global life expectancy has been climbing steadily for generations. Many of us have been fortunate to see evidence of this in our own extended families. Many of us are seeing our parents outlive their parents, who themselves outlived theirs.

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A recent study published in the Lancet that was unprecedented in its scope backs up the anecdotal evidence with eye-opening scientific data. The study, crunching numbers compiled by more than 700 researchers, found that global life expectancy has risen by an average of six years over the past two decades — from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013.

That's the good news – remarkable advances in health care are helping us live longer, hopefully more fruitful lives.

The bad news? Even though our global population is growing overall, the number of aging or elderly citizens is expanding much more quickly than any other population segment, including the young. Our planet is getting greyer.

These rapidly changing demographics bring with them many challenges that will change the way companies around the world do business, and could hurt those that don't properly prepare their leadership to adapt.

These workplace demographic challenges and strategies to deal with them form a key part of the transformation in leadership thinking we highlighted in the Hay Group's recently published book, Leadership 2030: The Six Megatrends You Need to Understand to Lead Your Company in the Future.

In addition to broader societal challenges such as the growing pressure an aging population puts on social programs like health care systems, individual organizations will be confronted by another key problem – shrinking pools of working-age labour.

As the work force contracts, the scarcity of skilled labour will increase. Competition for employees with specialized skills, high performers and effective leaders will ratchet up as the global war for talent escalates.

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Successful organizations will need to develop an increasingly diverse work force to ensure an adequate pipeline of talent. They will have to work harder to attract, integrate and develop potential star performers. This will mean recruiting men and women of all ages and from a variety of cultural backgrounds, relying on immigration where necessary.

But filling vacancies to remain competitive is only part of the challenge tied to our demographic shift. Organizations will also need to learn how to deal with the changing needs of an aging work force.

Older workers are not driven by the same things that motivate their younger colleagues. They need to be managed much differently in order to keep them engaged. A single rallying call to the whole team will no longer work. Leaders will need considerable listening skills and empathy to understand what motivates each team member.

Working practices, employment conditions and HR procedures will have to evolve to reflect the varying needs of different ages, ethnicities and genders.

More than ever before, leaders will have to learn how to manage work force diversity. They will be charged with bringing out the best in the different generations within their teams. More customized, age-appropriate task assignments and working practices — such as more flexible hours for older and younger workers — will be essential.

Leaders will also have to figure out the proper balance required to get the most out of both generations — tapping into and acknowledging the wealth of experience and knowledge of older staff, while also harnessing the adventurous attitudes and more achievement-driven behaviours of younger team members.

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Mentorship programs will become increasingly important to connect the generations and foster understanding, collaboration and knowledge exchange.

California-based technology giant HP is a good example of a global firm that has recognized the value of bridging the gap between its older and younger workers. HP, named to the top 10 in Hay Group's 2014 Global Best Companies for Leadership report, has numerous mentorship programs in place, including one that pairs recently retired employees with new hires.

Older workers may also find more demand for their skills as they wind down their careers, particularly in specialized fields such as science and engineering, where technical skills are at a premium. They may consider semi-retirement or take on consulting roles to take advantage of demand and continue to help their employers.

Creating extended loyalty programs involving both former employees and retirees will help organizations keep tabs on good employees, building the kind of networks that make rehiring easier during lean times.

Organizations need to invest in building strong bridges between the generations as their work force ages and their talent pools run thin.

Rick Lash is the national director of the leadership and talent practice for Hay Group (@HayGroup) in Canada and co-leader of the annual Hay Group Best Companies for Leadership study. Leadership 2030: The Six Megatrends You Need to Understand to Lead Your Company in the Future is written by Hay Group consultants Georg Vielmetter and Yvonne Sell, and published by Amacon Books.

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