Seniors and the neurodiverse: 2 pools of exceptional talent you need to cultivate now
Thursday, October 15, 2020
This article first appeared on HR.com.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world economy to a virtual standstill, people productivity was in its longest period of decline since records began. Since 2010, there has been steady downward pressure on productivity, stumping economists on what exactly is causing this trend. With all the increasingly intelligent and abundant technology available to workers, why are people not more productive in the workplace?
There are a variety of reasons for why this is happening, including organizations overwhelming people with new technology that is more “IT-centric” than “human-centric.” Additionally, organizations are not particularly good at getting the right people in the right place with the right skills, creating inefficiencies and employee disengagement.
In research for my new book “Solving the Productivity Puzzle” (Kogan Page, August 2020), I go into detail on the factors impacting people productivity, but also propose proven solutions. It is an eminently solvable conundrum if we think and do differently.
For example, one relatively simple solution is to broaden the pool of talent that we recruit from. Get right people with right skills in the right place by leveraging unique talents and experience.
Two heavily underutilized pools of talent are over-70s and the “neurodiverse.” They both bring completely different skills and experience, however, together they bring powerful combination of expertise and innovation. All factors that can improve workforce performance considerably.
Let’s take a look at these in turn, starting with seniors. The elongation of healthy human lifespan in the 21st century has been a quiet revolution going in the background of the modern workforce. As a result, average U.S. life expectancy increased from 68 years in 1950 to 78.6 years in 2018, in large part due to the reduction in mortality at older ages.
From the AARP: In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2024 — just four years from now — 13 million people age 65 and older will still be working. While the total number of workers is expected to increase by 5 percent over those 10 years, the number of workers ages 65 to 74 will swell by 55 percent. For people 75 and older, the total will grow a whopping 86 percent, according to BLS projections.
Today, most organizations focus their time and attention on recruiting millennials. Of course, this is important, but to do so at the expense of the other end of the age spectrum is to miss out on the full horsepower and know-how available in today’s workforce.
In my experience, the younger generations are exceptionally astute at seeking out the experience and expertise of older generations. They instinctively understand that the best way to learn, is to seek out those that know something and obtain that knowledge — quickly. They have no problem admitting they do not know something and use technology to find those that do.
Growing up with Wikipedia and YouTube at their fingertips, they do not waste any time on trying to learn things the hard way (trial and error). They reach out to those who are in the know and ask them for help. And of course, what senior worker does not want to show what they know! It feels good.
This 21st century bridge between generations is a unique opportunity to help solve the productivity puzzle. However, we must do two things better: 1. Learn how to recruit, retain, and deploy seniors; 2. Put in place human-centric technology tools that encourage and facilitate collaboration between generations. Both things do not require massive amounts of investment to implement. However, the payback can be enormous in people engagement, innovation, and performance.
The second major opportunity is hiring in the talent pool of “neurodiversity.” Neurodiverse is a term that has been around since the 1990s, when it was first coined by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer. What Singer was looking to describe was a group of conditions such as ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalcula and autism which aren’t “abnormal” or “diseases,” but simply variations of the human brain that are a natural part of the tapestry of human variety. The trick, and the opportunity, is to learn how to leverage neurodiverse individuals’ unique talents to everyone’s benefit.
We understand many conditions, such as autism, much better and increasingly recognize the unique capabilities and talents that people with “different brains” can bring. More and more companies are recognizing the power of “neurodiversity” in their workforce and are actively recruiting people on the autistic spectrum, as this pool of talent often successfully solve knotty challenges that most people cannot do. Different brains can also be successful in seeing things that other people do not see, creating innovative products and services.
The advent of the information economy and the data-intensive nature of work in the 21st century workplace has opened entirely new opportunities for meaningful engagement of individuals with innate talents uniquely suited to quantitative, data-immersive employment. Therefore, companies such as German-based software giant SAP have had, for more than three years now, a program specifically recruiting people who have autism or related differences. SAP is, as they put it, “tapping into a pool of talented people who can bring innovation and new ways of working” that drive new ideas for products and services that do not exist today.
Given the experience and innovation these two diverse workforces can bring, you should strongly consider joining companies like Microsoft, Google, Ford Motor Company, Ernst & Young and Walgreens in expanding and cultivating this talent. Not only is it good for your organization, it is good for society and our economy.
To get out of the current crisis, we are going to need all hands on deck. Let us turn this crisis into an opportunity to rethink work and the workplace; think and do differently. The investment and risks are minimal, and the rewards can be enormous.
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