Growing Older 101

We are growing older, becoming more colourful and fewer. Many people associate the demographic change with shortages of skilled labour, shortages of nursing staff, and stress. Albeit, now is the time to actively design the future world of employment. 

By Manfred Nedler

Translated from the German by Christine Kühn, Theresa Lupek, Lara Nettekoven und Luzie Lotta Schmitt

We work until the age of 70, still have fun while doing it, and continuously reduce our working hours between the ages of 50 and 70. Even in our younger years we have treated ourselves to regular time-outs in order to take care of children (not necessarily our own), to continue our studies, to become socially involved or just for fun. Since borders no longer exist, contrary to identical social and environmental standards, comparable salaries and there is (next to the various regional) one universal language, it is common to live and work in different parts of the world during the course of one’s life. National states have ceased to exist, just as the notion of belonging to one specific nation or even race. Company profits and personal assets are used to finance a solid subsistence income, exceeding the ‘minimum level’, as well as a lifelong, free of charge educational and health system. Wealthy people possess no more then a tenfold of what less wealthy people do. Poverty and hunger no longer exist. 

For years, scientists worldwide have been working on a strategy to abolish the monetary and financial system altogether. Psychologists have a key role in this endeavour. They establish which social structures and conditions are necessary so that people’s intrinsic motivation to become involved and make a social contribution will supersede the previous fixation on extrinsic motivation, the self-disciplining for the prospect of reward and acknowledgement. 

Books on topics like burnout and stress management can only be found in antiquarian bookshops. Children learn from an early age to place their personal dignity and integrity above all else. Therefore, even as adults, nothing could be further from their minds than to stress themselves out or beat themselves up at the expense of their health, serenity, and vitality in order to reach questionable goals within deadlines set by others. 

If not sooner, Helmut Schmidt would probably call in the doctor now. And yet, such utopias are actually the best medicine to keep one’s mind healthy in an economic and social system which considers itself to be the only way, even though it does not have satisfactory answers to various problems.

From utopia to reality

Let’s take a look at the situation at the beginning of the 21st century. Demographic change is a phenomenon that is emerging no less surprisingly than climate change. Now is the time to act, ‘to see the crisis as a glass which is half-full’, to reorganise working conditions so that we are able to bear and survive work until the age of 67, and also to actively seek out people you originally never wanted to work with. After all, early retirement as well as part-time work for older employees has long been a win-win-win situation: the employee was earlier released from unpleasant drudgery, politicians were able to show presentable employment statistics, and companies profited from ‘new blood’, meaning young, resilient and still motivated professionals.

These times have passed and this is clearly evident in human resources departments. Creativity has been activated. Early cooperation with schools, intensive public relations, image branding and the orientation on social responsibility as well as the recruitment of highly skilled employees from abroad are more and more integrated in the daily business of companies.

However, it remains a mystery how the working capacity of employees is supposed to be maintained until the age of 67 and beyond. Today, the pressure on profitability and the competitive pressure require a constant crisis management and a drive towards efficiency on the side of the company. Companies behave just like us, normal human beings. When faced with stressful situations, we tend to favour short-term work performance and neglect things that are important in the long run, such as being healthy and building meaningful relationships. Companies also lack the serenity and foresight to deal with long-term situations and develop a strategic course of action despite being faced with current pressure. This is why not only individual employees might be suffering from burnout; even entire companies ‘are on their last legs’. Since the external pressure will probably not wane, the new magic word is ‘resilience’, meaning the ability to deal with pressure, to keep your chin up and to manage crises successfully.


Strengthening resilience

At a personal level, this psychological and emotional stability is less dependent on methodological competences than on the general attitude people have towards themselves, other people, work, and life in general. We develop these attitudes very early in life and they are not easy to change. In order to set a totally new course in life, we firstly need a strong determination and belief that positive changes are actually possible and secondly, constant support and help for at least a year. This new outlook on life is about

  • starting to believe again that positive feelings and thus a good life are possible, that it is good to think positively and that in a committed and active life, positive feelings are within reach.
  • developing enough inner strength to trust ourselves as well as our feelings and opinions and not to let ourselves be governed by what others do or think.
  • bravely facing the facts: “I decide how I spend my time, but I only have 24 hours. I accept ‘what is possible’ and ‘what is not’. I decide and I live with the consequences.”
  • self-confident communication, e. g.: “I need help with this task”, “I am not able to finish this task today, unless…”, “please speak quietly, I really need to concentrate” etc.

New balanced values can be developed neither in one day nor in a seminar room. However, they can be developed over an adequately long period of time during which they are supported by permanent encouragement and based on new, positive experiences which we will increasingly rely on. Therefore, a compact seminar is not as promising as a combination of media-based self-directed learning and personal support in small, moderated groups as well as with individual help via phone and email. Additionally, this concept is much more cost-effective for a company than standard individual coaching.


Enhancing openness and patience

At an organisational level, attitudes play a more fundamental role than formal aspects such as job descriptions or organisational charts. They are mainly characterised and strengthened by communication. Whoever wants to encourage confidence and resilience should start by looking at the internal communication of the company and study it critically:

  • Do the employees work together as a team or do they instead work individually?
  • How relaxed and open is communication between them?
  • What exactly do they say about mistakes and how do they say it?
  • Is the communication only based on work or is it also about the contact with each other, e. g. in the form of appreciation or openly expressed criticism?
  • Is the communication mainly problem-orientated and pessimistic, and perhaps even cynical, or rather solution-orientated and confident?
  • How often do employees laugh and how is their reaction?
  • Is the communication within the company always respectful? Who might be insulted by whom and how?
  • Does the management set an example for open, straightforward, and respectful communication?
  • Are staff appraisals and meetings lively, interesting, and productive or rather an unpleasant routine that no one expects anything from?

Both positive changes at an organisational level and positive changes at a personal level require a sufficient degree of determination and patience. Management requires the determination to work on its own communication and to act as a ‘shining example’. The necessary stimuli can be activated by an event, for example a company theatrical performance that exposes old communication patterns in a humorous, provocative way and that shows how attractive a new corporate culture can be.


Accepting and organising limits

When courage and openness are sufficiently developed at the individual and organisational level, the decisive factor is still missing: the individual and organisational dispute over possible goals and limits. Even strong, resilient employees have, of course, physical and psychological limits that need to be respected and protected. Their stability helps them to respond to pressure in a more relaxed way and to set priorities. But this does not mean that they are what is called an Übermensch and are therefore invulnerable. If a company wants to maintain its employees’ motivation and working capacity up until they are 67 and beyond, it has to limit its demands on the employees to a healthy level. That means:

  • No new project is started before an old one is terminated, perhaps even prematurely.
  • Breaks are ‘sacred’ and should be used to relax.
  • Grey areas between work and free time are eliminated: if someone needs to be available for the company, this must count as working hours.
  • Employees, including managers, are explicitly encouraged to indicate personal overload.
  • Managers are encouraged to indicate overload within their team.
  • All employees know what kind of work takes priority in times of overload and what can be postponed.
  • Working hours are reduced successively with increasing age, on a full salary. Experienced companies know that this is economically efficient.

Companies that no longer repress the problem of work overload gain strength, innovative capability, and resistance. And this becomes more and more important in an economic system with an immanent obligation to grow.


Culture: the decisive factor for change

Of course there are other very pragmatic starting points for promoting health and working capacity: working hours that are adapted to the employees’ private needs, sports and wellness offers, healthy canteen food etc. By taking part in projects like the German DemografieFit project (see box) or Demografie Aktiv, companies are enabled to systematically identify promising measures and to introduce them. However, the fact remains that what is really important is the corporate position, communication, and culture. Therefore, staff appraisals, even if they were well meant, are of no use in a corporate culture that is identified by mistrust. And if the company systematically ignores when employees are overloaded, sport offers just seem cynical.

DemografieFit …for a change

“Without taking part in a project, day-to-day business prevents us from thinking about such a topic”, says Frank Schröter, manager of Schlatter Deutschland. In Münster, 167 employees produce welding machines as well as machines for special applications and assemble them all over the world. “When an employee’s daughter graduates, we pay for the mechanic’s flight back from China.” It is important for Schröter to know the individual needs of his employees. “This creates loyalty”, he says. Schlatter is one of eight companies and organisations in and around Münster that are taking part in the DemografieFit project and in Hessen there are eight more. Lots of different sectors participate in the project: from nursing homes and industrial cleaning companies to mechanical engineers. By taking part in the project they learn from each other. This is why the automation engineers at Blumenbeck want to copy the taster days for trainees from geriatric nursing. “We want to try that too. We want to constantly create interest by implementing projects, and not only on special project days”, the manager Harald Golombeck explains.

From his consultations, Dr. Udo Westmann, head of the DemografieFit project in Münster, knows that the topic of demography is not considered important within the day-to-day business of small and medium-sized companies. If companies take part in a project like DemografieFit, resources are reserved for the exchange with other companies, for workshops about situation analyses and for the development of new strategies within the company.

With the moderated demographic check, companies have the possibility to find their own way to change, Westermann explains. The more than 30 questions of the self-assessment check help to work out precisely the company’s status quo and wishes. A basis for implementing processes is developed and accepted by all members of staff because employees from all corporate divisions, starting from the mechanic up to management, work together and evaluate problems and develop solutions themselves.

The demographic corporate development can even be measured. This is why Volker Brand, manager of Oerlikon Textile Components, says that his company will only be offering healthy canteen food in its three-shift operation from now on. “You should not just concentrate on the controllers”, he advised at a project event with the German Health Minister Daniel Bahr. In the course of a common health promotion, the employees, for example, commit to each other to quit smoking. “I also quit smoking”, he expressed with relief.

Manfred Nedler is an industrial psychologist and develops analyses, projects and trainings in the field of stress at work and demographic change. He is a member of staff of the DemografieFit project and a member of the network Demografie Westälisches Ruhrgebiet (Westphalia Ruhr region).

More articles to the topic range prediction, future, trends, visions and utopias you will find not only online but in our magazine Be(a)ware. This PDF-magazine includes additional numbers and quotes is finely illustrated and best readable on tablet computers and screens.

Magazin als PDF