“Graying the grey” talks about the aging workforce’s profound influence on the management and utilization of grey literature (GL). This phenomenon, globally pervasive, reshapes labor market dynamics, presenting substantial economic, social, and organizational challenges. Its impact transcends various domains of activity within both commercial enterprises and public organizations. Grey literature, an integral part of broader information and knowledge management, stands no exception to this transformative trend. Already experiencing the impact of this demographic shift, it stands poised to encounter even more profound effects. This paper aims to examine this impact, shedding light on the imminent challenges while proposing potential mitigation strategies. By delving into the transformative potential of this change, the paper seeks to empower organizations to proactively prepare for and navigate this paradigm shift, effectively transforming challenges into opportunities within the realm of GL management and utilization.
The Twenty-Fifth International Conference on Grey Literature, themed “Confronting Climate Change with Trusted Grey Resources,” held recently, presented a well-organized event set within the exquisite Amsterdam Public Library. The conference offered an interesting array of presentations, discussions, and workshops that delved into diverse topics. They encompassed the role of grey literature in policymaking, its relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and its contribution to vital areas such as the climate change document collection of the International Nuclear Information System (INIS). It also covered the impact on sustainable fishing, the right to knowledge, Agile transformation, and the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in GL management.
Amid my attentive following of the presentations and engaging Q&A sessions, a persistent yet unintended observation captured my attention. I found myself discreetly scanning the conference hall, observing the demographics among the 50-plus attendees. Having been a consistent attendee of this conference for over a decade, the striking prevalence of mature participants became evident. While a few younger individuals were present, as someone within the 60+ age bracket, I couldn’t help but recognize that some attendees were likely retired or nearing retirement. This prompted a realization that the average age of participants was probably 55+.
However, this observation didn’t evoke a nostalgic yearning for bygone youth; rather, it spurred contemplation on a more profound and critical matter. I was among a group of passionate “old GL enthusiasts,” brimming with vigor, extensive knowledge, and decades of work experience. The ensuing thoughts centered on the imminent impact that their departure and eventual full retirement would have on GL management and utilization. Questions arose about organizational preparedness in acknowledging the impending loss of invaluable knowledge and experience. I pondered whether measures were in place to safeguard this wealth of wisdom for the next generation poised to step into their roles. The contemplation extended to speculate the potential repercussions on GL management and the proactive mitigation actions organizations might need to undertake to avoid such substantial knowledge loss.
The aging workforce also referred to as “graying”1, signifies the demographic transformation occurring within a workforce, characterized by a considerable portion of employees nearing retirement age or already retired. This natural trend depicts a gradual aging of the workforce over time, with an increasing number of employees falling into older age brackets.
The world’s population is getting older, a phenomenon that has important implications for the future of work. Persons aged 55 years and over are expected to outnumber all children aged 0 to 14 years by 2035 and the entire child and youth population aged 0 to 24 years by 2080. As a direct consequence of population aging, the number of older workers aged 55 to 64 years is increasing and is set to equal one quarter of the global labor force by 2030 (Harasty & Ostermeier, 2020).
This global phenomenon is reshaping labor market dynamics and presenting substantial economic, social, and organizational challenges. Across numerous nations, demographic shifts marked by longer life expectancies and declining birth rates have led to a progressively older average workforce. In the United States, for instance, the labor force participation rate of individuals aged 55 and above has been steadily increasing, reaching a projected 25% in 2024 (CFWI, 2023). This significant demographic shift is expected to profoundly impact both the economy and society at large.
Furthermore, the evolving age demographics have far-reaching implications for labor market participation and productivity. The disparity between the shrinking influx of younger workers into the workforce and the increasing number of retirees may result in a diminished talent pool. This shortage of skilled labor, if not strategically addressed, has the potential to impede economic growth and innovation. Additionally, older workers might encounter difficulties adapting to rapidly evolving job requirements and technologies, potentially affecting overall productivity.
Moreover, the shift in age demographics brings about changes in consumer behavior, with a growing market for products and services catering to older demographics. Industries such as healthcare, leisure, and retirement services are poised for growth, while others may need to adapt their strategies to target this changing consumer base. Addressing the implications of an aging workforce requires comprehensive policies and strategies that encompass healthcare, social security, employment practices, and education, aiming to support older workers, promote intergenerational collaboration, and sustain economic vitality.
Grey literature refers to any recorded, referable, and sustainable data or information resource of current or future value made publicly available without undergoing the traditional peer-review process (Savic, 2018).
According to GreyNet, there exist over 150 types of grey literature (GreyNet, 2004). These encompass reports, feasibility studies, dissertations, proceedings, news releases, newsletters, brochures, notes, posters, blogs, datasets, databases, and various others.
Here are some characteristics of grey literature:
- Originates from diverse sources, including individuals, businesses, public institutions, research centers, and local, national, or global organizations.
- Exist in electronic or paper-based formats.
- Generated by either machines or individuals.
- The vast volume of GL items is already available and more generated daily.
- Difficult to locate and identify due to lack of easy ways for their identification by search engines.
- Nevertheless, GL offers several significant advantages (Exeter, 2023):
- It provides a diverse perspective and valuable insights from non-traditional sources such as government reports, conference proceedings, and unpublished research, thereby offering a broader perspective on a given topic.
- It often contains specialized and niche knowledge not readily available in mainstream publications, helping to address information gaps in existing research.
- It is typically produced more rapidly than formal publications, serving as a valuable timely, and current information resource for staying abreast of the latest developments and trends in a particular field.
- It empowers researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to make well-informed decisions by incorporating a wider range of evidence beyond peer-reviewed journals and books.
Impact of Aging Workforce on Grey Literature Management and Use
The aging workforce can have a significant impact on managing and using knowledge and information based on various resources, such as GL and others, available within the auspices of an organization. Here are some key ways in which this can occur:
- Loss of institutional knowledge: As older, experienced employees retire or leave, they take with them a wealth of institutional knowledge accumulated over the years. This often includes knowledge of undocumented GL-type information, insights, and experiences that may not be formally recorded or easily transferred to younger employees. This “brain drain” can lead to a loss of critical expertise and historical insights.
- Skills and expertise gap: Older employees may possess specialized skills or expertise that are not easily replaceable. This creates a gap when they leave, especially if succession planning or knowledge transfer mechanisms are inadequate. Awareness of specific GL repositories or specific individual resources, not widely known, are just some examples.
- Challenges in knowledge transfer: Transferring knowledge from older employees to younger ones can be challenging due to differences in communication styles, technology usage, and work approaches. Bridging this generation gap is crucial for effective knowledge transfer in many areas, GL being just one of them.
- Technological adaptability: Older employees may be less familiar or comfortable with new technologies and digital platforms used for knowledge and information management, while younger generations might be closer to modern IT trends. This can hinder the adoption of modern knowledge and information-sharing tools and practices within the organization.
- Workforce diversity: An aging workforce might lack diversity in perspectives, potentially limiting innovative thinking and the adaptation of new ideas. Younger generations often bring fresh insights and different approaches to problem-solving. This dichotomy can create different approaches to dealing with specific information requests and their urgency, therefore potentially creating tension among colleagues.
- Retaining intellectual capital: Retaining the intellectual capital of older employees before they retire is crucial. Organizations need strategies to capture, document, and organize their knowledge in accessible formats for future use. Successful dealing with GL, including its management and use, involves a huge and complex set of different rules and examples gained during years of experience. Transfer of this knowledge and experience is time-consuming and not always practical.
Mitigating the Impact of an Aging Workforce
The effective mitigation of the impact of an aging workforce on knowledge and information transfer requires the cultivation of a dynamic organizational culture centered on continuous learning and collaborative knowledge sharing. Organizations can create an environment conducive to knowledge exchange by fostering apprenticeship and mentorship programs that facilitate the transfer of expertise from experienced employees to their younger counterparts. Encouraging cross-generational collaboration initiatives and establishing accessible platforms for sharing experiences and insights are pivotal strategies that actively bridge the knowledge gap, facilitating a transfer of institutional knowledge.
Knowledge transfer can have a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line. Companies that prioritize knowledge transfer are 4.5 times more likely to have highly engaged employees. In addition, knowledge transfer can lead to about a 25% increase in productivity and a 35% decrease in employee turnover (Gallemard, 2023).
However, the process of knowledge transfer is often perceived as resource-intensive, both in terms of time and expenditure (Winstanely, G. 2023). This obstacle leads many organizations to shy away from investing in comprehensive knowledge management practices. Some may opt for risk-taking rather than committing additional resources to these endeavors. Yet, in recognizing the imminent challenges posed by an aging workforce, it becomes imperative for organizations to view such investments as major steps in ensuring continuity and sustained growth.
In order to effectively mitigate the impending impact, organizations must make informed and strategic investments. Emphasizing initiatives that not only foster knowledge transfer but also promote robust collaboration across generations is essential. Beyond this, documenting critical knowledge, implementing and sustaining mentorship programs2, and fostering a culture of continuous learning for all employees emerge as main strategies. Furthermore, establishing an inclusive work environment that values diverse perspectives serves as a catalyst in harnessing the strengths and experiences of both younger and older workers. This inclusive approach not only ensures effective knowledge and information management but also fosters an environment of innovation and growth, positioning organizations to thrive in spite of demographic changes and evolving workforce dynamics.
Some of the challenges and opportunities associated with the graying workforce are the following:
- The impending retirement of older workers may trigger a shortage of qualified replacements, leading to a significant skills gap within various industries. This shortage could pose challenges for businesses in sourcing the necessary talent, impacting their productivity and operational effectiveness. This includes, among others, knowledge and information management.
- The higher salary demands of older workers often strain business budgets, sometimes resulting in premature replacements without fully leveraging their knowledge and experience. Consequently, businesses might miss the opportunity to transfer critical institutional wisdom.
- Health-related concerns among older employees may increase instances of absenteeism and escalate healthcare costs for organizations. In response, companies may opt to engage younger workers, in spite of their lack of experience and knowledge of vital information resources like GL.
- Establishing an advanced IT infrastructure, coupled with efficient knowledge transfer methods and fostering an organizational culture that values and utilizes GL, demands substantial investment and strategic planning.
- Upskilling and reskilling in today’s rapidly evolving world is an urgent need. Unfortunately, older workers are disproportionately overlooked when it comes to receiving training, particularly in the realm of technology. In addition, older workers are 67% more likely to be drawn to jobs with a high risk of automation than millennials, leading them toward layoffs rather than upskilling (CFWI, 2023).
- It is important to address age-related biases and promote inclusivity in the workplace, ensuring that mid-career and older workers are valued and provided with equal opportunities for growth and development, rather than being assigned to less important ephemeral jobs and tasks.
- Seasoned older workers possess a wealth of experience and expertise, offering invaluable knowledge beneficial to businesses. Their adeptness in locating and utilizing GL resources stands as a significant advantage for companies seeking expertise in this domain.
- The maturity and stability commonly associated with older workers are assets for businesses requiring employees capable of handling pressure and making sound decisions. The intricate management of GL, though not perceived as glamorous, relies on experienced professionals’ steady and meticulous approach.
- Older workers often exhibit higher levels of loyalty and commitment, contributing to reduced turnover rates and increased productivity. Their extensive experience dealing with diverse GL resources equips them with the expertise needed to swiftly resolve complex user inquiries.
- The aging workforce presents a complex issue involving numerous challenges and opportunities. However, it is important to note that each challenge also presents an opportunity that, if properly addressed, can significantly contribute to the company’s well-being. The factors outlined here offer just a glimpse into this intricate landscape. Nonetheless, by acknowledging these aspects, businesses and organizations can better prepare for the future by harnessing the knowledge and experience of the aging workforce. Simultaneously, they can cultivate a new generation of workers poised to be both productive and sustainable.
The aging of the workforce is a global phenomenon reshaping labor market dynamics and presenting substantial economic, social, and organizational challenges. Its impact transcends various domains of activity within both commercial enterprises and public organizations. Grey literature, an integral part of broader information and knowledge management, stands no exception to this transformative trend. Already experiencing the impact of this demographic shift, it stands poised to encounter even more profound effects.
In order to effectively mitigate the impending impact, organizations must make informed and strategic investments. Emphasizing initiatives that not only foster knowledge transfer but also promote robust collaboration across generations is essential. Documenting critical knowledge, implementing and sustaining mentorship programs, and fostering a culture of continuous learning for all employees emerge as main strategies. Establishing an inclusive work environment that values diverse perspectives serves as a catalyst in harnessing the strengths and experiences of both younger and older workers.
Dr. Dobrica Savić
- Graying (greying) – a situation in which the number of older people living in an area is increasing because people are living longer. Cambridge Dictionary. https://urlis.net/n8xrhivi ↩︎
- A mentoring program can be up to 680 times cheaper than executive coaching and 373 times cheaper than in-person training sessions (Winstanely, G. 2023). ↩︎
- CFWI, 2023. Center for Workforce Inclusion. The Changing Face of the Labor Force: Mid-Career and Older Workers on the Rise. https://urlis.net/vpwd2x7q
- Gallemard, J., 2023. The Basics of Knowledge Transfer: A Beginner’s Guide. https://urlis.net/yen7yyrq
- GreyNet, 2004. https://www.greynet.org/greysourceindex/documenttypes.html
- Harasty, C. & Ostermeier, M., 2020. POPULATION AGEING: Alternative measures of dependency and implications for the future of work. https://urlis.net/rfmmc640
- Savic, D., 2018. ‘Rethinking the Role of Grey Literature in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, TGJ (The Grey Journal), Special Winter Issue, vol. 14. https://urlis.net/nkixfvqa
- Exeter, University of, 2023. ‘Lib Guides: What is Grey Literature’. https://urlis.net/kj1coc5m
- Winstanely, G., 2023. How to Use Mentoring In Your Knowledge Transfer & Sharing Strategy. https://urlis.net/jobi5kp2
*The image created using MidJourney.