One of the main challenges faced by UK businesses comes in meeting the L&D needs of their multi-generational workforce that takes account of their different motivations and learning styles. What we must increasingly consider is how to make training work through the ages.
Increasing the skills of the UK workforce could generate £80 billion for the economy, says the UK government’s Future of an Aging Population report. As the population ages, this is a key consideration for all businesses. Participation in learning activities is particularly falling with the 60-69 age group and the report suggest that at current rates only 20% of those 50+ will be involved in lifelong learning by 2040.
Yet this is not a phenomenon that is particular to the older workforce, as learning across all age groups are showing a sharp decline. To understand how to make training both appealing and useful to staff of all ages, we have to consider how motivations and attitudes to learning change over time.
Self-efficacy and self-concept
There are many misconceptions that surround motivation, attitudes and ability to learn in older employees, just as there can be misconceptions of younger employees’ inclination to learn. What studies have shown, however, is that a decline in cognitive functioning can mean that older people will process information at a slower rate and thus learn more slowly.
Kanfer and Ackerman suggest that the sensitivity older employees have towards their change in abilities can affect self-efficacy. This could, of course, manifest in a reluctance to participate in training. The authors suggest that as we age, our motives and goals change.
Performance and achievement takes second place to affirming our identity and protecting self-concept. So whilst younger adults might approach training from an informational value or future opportunity perspective, the older adult might assess training in terms of the emotional satisfaction it might offer or the support it brings to their identity.
A study by Telkom in Indonesia looked at the learning styles of different generations in their workplace of 18,285 employees comprised primarily of baby boomers (1946-1964), then Gen X (1965-1980) with a small proportion of Gen Y (1981-2000).
They utilised Fleming’s VAK learning styles model which categorises learners as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic as well as Mumford and Honey’s learning styles (based on the work of Kolb) with its four learning styles, activist, theorist, pragmatist and reflector.
Why before try
The authors found that their baby boomers preferred an activist or pragmatic learning style and were more visual, meaning that training that relied purely on auditory aspects wouldn’t be as effective as training delivered by a trainer who utilised effective body language to engage and maintain their interest.
As activists they learn best in a participative style, where they can get involved and actually try out new skills. As pragmatists, they need to know how training translates to a workplace setting as abstract ideas that have little relevance to their day-to-day life will alienate them.
They also found that their Generation X employees had a preference for both activist and theorist learning styles. Theorists need to know the ‘why’ before they attempt to try.
Debunking Gen Y myths
A 2017 study into L&D strategy for Generation Y by Böhlich found that the majority of this generation were kinaesthetic learners who learn through their five senses. They also debunk the myth that younger people aren’t as keen to learn, explaining that they are just not keen on learning through traditional means instead preferring research, exploration and discussion.
They prefer free-flow conversation between trainer and participants instead of one way lectures but still expect the overall guidance of a trainer. The assumption that Generation Y would be drawn to training that utilises smartphones or gadgets was also dispelled, with this generation appreciating technology but not wishing to confuse entertainment with learning.
Another interesting angle comes in reverse learning and how different age groups respond to positive (reward) and negative outcomes as reported in a 2011 study from Nashiro in the journal of Cognition and Emotion. Participants were taught to relate a stimulus to an outcome which would then be switched without notice.
They found that older adults learn more effectively when outcomes are positive than when they are negative. Older adults made more errors in the negative conditions than the positive conditions whereas younger adults showed no difference whether conditions were positive or negative.
The authors suggest that this is due to age-related decline in reversal learning and say this may be down to changes in reward systems for older adults, i.e. that they are more used to being motivated by reward.
Giving employees the opportunity to influence how they learn
Making training initiatives work throughout the ages is about more than subscribing to widely held misconceptions of older or younger employees. And whilst generational learning style indicators are of use, they are just that- indicators. Far better is giving employees the opportunity to have influence over how they learn.
We need to appreciate that attitudes to performance and achievement change as we age; the things that once motivated us may not motivate us in the same way. So too, aging can affect self-efficacy and beliefs about our abilities to be successful.
Training that enhances rather than diminishes self-concept, and is undertaken in a positive, reward based environment is how we will help older employees to engage in the training process.