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Global Population Trends Require a Radical Rethink of Talent Acquisition Strategies

It is very easy to get caught up in the here and now of workplace challenges around talent acquisition (skills shortages, multigenerational workforce, ageing population, socio-economic issues, etc.), and the best way to tackle them in the short-term (this week, this month, this year). But what if a much wider look at the trends affecting talent acquisition were taken into consideration – would that make the talent acquisition profession change its approach?

An inspiring talk on population trends by Professor Sarah Harper, co-director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, at Cielo’s Talent Rising Summit 2017 gave some interesting food for thought: taking into consideration population trends over the next 30+ years could really change the way talent acquisition challenges are addressed in future. Here are some of the more pertinent issues that stood out. Examples are my own.

Population trends overview

Firstly, working with the most multi-generational workforce for decades, most people in the talent acquisition industry probably have not considered the relative life expectancy of those different generations and the impact that could have on length of working life. In developed countries, 50% of the parents of baby boomers died by 69 years of age (hence why at the time the retirement age was set at 65). Baby boomers (who have retired or are just about to) have life expectancy into their early 80s (which suggests that their retirement age should have been/could be reset at 75 years of age, if worked out on the same principle!). For those born in 2017, life expectancy could easily be 104 years for ~50% of the population.  The thought of being in retirement for almost the same length of time as being in work is a daunting prospect for many. Talent acquisition professionals/organizations should start to think about the prospect of having workers potentially staying around in the workplace for much longer (especially Millennials and Gen Zs with their longer life expectancy) and consider that these groups could have several different careers across their working lives – a great long-term opportunity to re-skill them for the future of work.   

Secondly, it is well documented that developed nations are seeing a constantly ageing population. It even became a major concern for China, with its dramatically ageing population, and the decision to relax its one-child policy in 2013. Do talent acquisition professionals think about the magnitude of the ageing population and its long-term implications? The median age of the population is 52.4 in Monaco (highest), 46.9 in Japan, and 46.8 in Germany (CIA, 2016). The U.K. is ranked 44th at 40.5, and the U.S. is ranked 62nd at 37.9. In 2000, there were 18.5K centenarians across the globe, predicted to be 3.2 million by 2050. And, of course, health is an important factor affecting longevity of life. Many of the diseases associated with the 20th or 21st century have lower mortality rates today due to either better personal health choices or better medical treatments/intervention enabling higher survival rates.

So, how can talent acquisition professionals benefit from these population trends?

Leveraging a multi-generational workforce more effectively

Research from the field of psychology has identified that an older worker is more likely to demonstrate crystallized intelligence in the workplace – the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience built up over time (a product of educational and cultural experience) to make informed business decisions/take effective action. Crystallized intelligence improves with age (to mid-late seventies). By comparison, a younger worker is more likely to demonstrate fluid intelligence, which includes pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving. Information is processed quickly, enabling quick decision-making. However, fluid intelligence starts to decline in adolescence, and an ageing population is better suited for more complex jobs than the younger population. Many retirees already look to part-time employment to give them a sense of purpose in retirement. This a real opportunity for talent acquisition professionals/organizations to leverage the skills of older workers or alumni (who have already retired) on a part-time/full-time or gig basis and train them in areas where a skills shortage already exists.

The impact of technology (RPA, AI, etc.), can bring immediate benefits to an ageing working population too, with technology performing heavy manual tasks, which would otherwise be difficult for an older worker to carry out. Likewise, older workers may relish operating such technology to enable them to better carry out their work duties. Later this century, developments in technology are likely to enable radical longevity: living even longer due to developments in nanotechnology and 3-d printing of organs, for example. This provides another reason for talent acquisition professionals/organizations to leverage older workers as part of a more flexible workforce.

Understanding population redistribution patterns is key

One of the most daunting predictions, due to pockets of relatively high birth rate in some regions of the world, is the narrowing geographic concentration of younger people. India is likely to have the largest population (all ages) by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa, with an average birth rate of 5-7 children and lower mortality rates due to better access to medical care, is likely to have the greatest concentration of young people by 2050. Predictions foresee Africa’s population going from 1.1 billion (2010) to 2.4 billion by 2050. The knock-on effect is an overall redistribution of the world’s population. Europe, currently with ~25% of the world’s workers living and working in the region, will see that proportion drop to less than 10% in 2050, and down to 6% by the end of century.

Talent acquisition professionals must consider that India may offer them the best opportunities in the more immediate future to address skills shortages (as India has already established itself as a dominant hub for IT professionals). Africa may offer the best opportunities longer-term (assuming the right infrastructure investments are made in the region). That could have a considerable effect on the future of large/medium-sized organizations, as they decide where to locate themselves, either to maximize presence in countries offering a better supply of talent, or to use more remote talent.

Finally, the changing pattern of migration is likely to impact where the most qualified talent will be found in the future. Following the Second World War, Britain attracted migrants to help re-build infrastructure (some from Europe, but mainly from Asia and the Caribbean – the latter being attracted to Britain at a time when the U.S. severely restricted immigration). The brain drain saw scientists moving from Europe to the U.S., and later, the EU allowed freedom of movement of workers, with EU migrants in the U.K. exceeding non-EU migrants. In the U.K., 42% of migrants work in processing plants (cleaning, food prep, etc.) and 26% work as healthcare professionals (50% as healthcare workers in London). India becoming more dominant in the technology sector reflects the reverse brain drain of skills from the U.S. to India (where just 20-30 years previously, migrants moved from India to the U.S. to work in technology). By 2020, China and India will be the main locations attracting talent. Whilst 75% of the world’s population were living in urban areas in 2015, it is predicted that the percentage will rise to 90% by the end of the century. These migration trends partially reflect patterns identified by concentrated population numbers, and will also determine where organizations may decide to locate themselves or use a significantly higher proportion of remote workers to reach the talent needed to sustain them.

In summary

It is clear by looking at the trends in the world’s population that longer-term skills shortages are likely to have to be addressed by utilizing an increasingly aged population and utilizing talent that is concentrated in just a few regions of the world – parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – due to a combination of population explosion and migration.

That’s a very different scenario to dealing with the here and now of skills shortages, and something talent acquisition professionals/organizations should pay serious attention to.

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