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America Is Unready for the Era of the Aging Worker

The author of 'Unfinished Work' on his reporting and advice

Joseph Coleman, a former AP foreign correspondent and now Indiana University Media School professor, recently spent three years traveling from Sweden to Sarasota to profile the global aging workforce. As you can tell by the title of his new book, Unfinished Work: The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce, he was underwhelmed by what’s happening here.
“Older employees and job-seekers increasingly feel that their age is being held against them,” he wrote. “Trained, energetic, would-be older workers are frustrated by a job market that fails to take advantage of their talents.”

His conclusion: We can do better.

Coleman believes that preparing for and “smoothing the path of” the aging workforce of the future should be one of our leading priorities and that this is the time for the government and employers to retrain mid- and late-career workers “so they can extend their viability and value.” I spoke with Coleman recently to learn more about what he learned and what he thinks employers and older employees should be doing. Highlights:

Next Avenue: In your research, did you find that people in their 50s and 60s want to keep working?
Coleman: As I dug into it, I realized that a lot of people want to continue working if not full-time, then part time and there’s a lack of opportunity for them. There’s age discrimination and a lack of training infrastructure to brush up on skills or for people to reinvent themselves later in life.
Medical science is giving us about 15 extra years to live and the question is: What do we do with it? I found that, for a lot of people, being retired is not what they wanted to do.

(MORE: Firms to Preretirees: Lots O' Luck)
You subtitled the book ‘The Struggle to Build an Aging American Workforce.’ How is it a struggle?

There was recently a study of HR managers of American companies’ preparedness for the aging of the population and it found that only one-third of companies have come up with a plan to deal with their aging workforce. The others are still not waking up to this demographic.
There’s a great storehouse of value in our older citizens, but society and companies haven’t figured out how to tap into that. This is like an earthquake in slow motion, stretched out over decades.
Some older employees and job seekers feel their age is being held against them. Are they right?
I think they do face age discrimination. There’s enough anecdotal evidence and there are enough complaints filed suggesting that this is a very real thing. It’s easy to imagine how it would happen with all the stereotypes people hold about older workers: They can’t handle technology, they’re slow moving, they’re stuck in their ways.

(MORE: Why Aren't Firms Planning for an Aging Workforce?)
The interesting thing is, polling data seems to suggest that employers think highly of older employees; they rate them high in maturity and for their ability to communicate, for their sensitivity dealing with the public and for their reliability. Yet what happens when an older job applicant comes through the door, more negative connotations come into play.
When you work with an older employee day in, day out, you see him or her as a full person. You see a job applicant as an old person. That’s why it takes someone 50 or older almost twice as long to get rehired after a layoff as a younger person.
But don’t employers have to concern themselves with the higher cost of hiring an older applicant — in terms of salary and benefits?
Yes. An older job applicant would say: ‘You’re getting me and all my experience, I should get paid more.’ And one of the selling points of older job applicants is: ‘I can hit the ground running; it won’t take six months to teach me how to do everything.’
What did you find employers were doing, or not doing, about training and retraining older workers?
Training is a huge issue. There is a lack of training opportunities for everybody, but especially for older workers. Some employers think: ‘You never know when they will leave or get sick or if their spouse will retire, so what’s the point in putting them through an expensive training program if they’ll only be around for a few years?’
But some companies figure that it’s actually cheaper for them to train those people and lengthen the time they’ll be valuable than to push them into early retirement and then recruit and hire someone else who might not work out.

Is the U.S. government doing anything to train older workers to help make them more employable?
There’s one major training and employment program for older workers, the Senior Community Service Employment Program or SCSEP. But your income has to be 125 percent of the poverty rate or lower to qualify, so in 2011, only 75,000 people participated in it; a drop in the bucket.
Did you come across any worthwhile programs for older workers in other countries?
Sweden has something interesting. They’ve created job councils that are union-industry specific. Payroll taxes and contributions from companies are used to create employment bureaus for industries. When people are laid off, they go to the job council. They’re then paired with counselors who look at their resumés and then either try to find jobs for them with other companies in their industry or, if they want to do something different but need to take a course for six months, the council will end up paying for it.
There’s a pretty high rehiring rate — at the job council I looked at, something like 80 or 90 percent of those who go through it got other jobs.

(MORE: Phased Retirement May Be Coming Where You Work)

In your book, you wrote about how Scripps Health is doing smart things to address its older workforce. What are some of them?
They give a tuition scholarship benefit to employees who want to retrain. One nurse finished her BA and got her masters in her 50s.
The company also has a staged retirement program. This works really well for people in their 50s or early 60s who are not ready to retire yet but might have an aging parent, or want to see their grandkids, or their spouse is retired, and they want to hang out with them. Or maybe they always wanted to learn how to play guitar. So they can downshift, rather than face the stark choice of working full-time or not working at all.
You write that the most successful firms for keeping older workers have flexible job descriptions and scheduling workflow. Why are those features good for employers and employees?
For employers, they’re good because they can hold onto people longer. Workers like their jobs more because they can make their own schedule. Older workers, in general, want more control over their schedule.
What could be done to make it easier and more profitable for older Americans to work longer if they want?
That’s a hard question. A part of the answer is that more companies can do what they do in Japan and rehire their retirees part-time.
Where do encore careers fit into the picture?
I think encore careers are a great idea; they're very inspiring if you can do it. But the people who are able to are not the people I worry about most. I’m worried about the ones in SCSEP or who lost their jobs at 55 and have three kids in college.
You write that retraining and career services for older Americans must be higher priorities for the government. Why?

I found that unemployed older workers who don’t qualify for SCSEP get nothing. The ones I interviewed felt completely abandoned. I’m not a policymaker, but there’s got to be some place for these people to get an opportunity for training that will help them.
What should people in their 50s and 60s be doing to help themselves?
I think people need to be more realistic about how long they will need to work or want to work and need to start thinking: ‘Will I be able to do this demanding job at 65? If not, what will I do and what should I do now to prepare for that?’
And they should take care of their bodies better for their longer lives.

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