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Employers Are Rethinking Older Worker Stereotypes

Some are progressive, others are dealing with an urgent skills shortage

Surveys repeatedly show that boomers want to keep earning an income well into the traditional retirement years, often by leaving old careers behind and trying something different. And they’re increasingly doing it.

The big question is: are employers ready to embrace them as employees?

Businesses, nonprofits and government agencies just might be nudged into it, and some are already starting to shelve the stereotypes of older workers.

Employers can learn from progressive companies like Bon Secours Virginia Healthcare System in Richmond, Va., Herman Miller in Zeeland, Mich., Mercy Health Systems in Janesville, Wisc. and Cinergy in Cincinnati, whose phased retirement and other programs help attract and retain older workers. The “Blue Bring Back” program of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of America lets managers request hiring retired former employees for assignments.

The older employees train the younger ones. It works the other way, too.

— John Bonzio, Metro Optics co-founder

Age Smart Employer Award Winners

Columbia University’s 2016 Age Boom Academy, where I moderated a panel (as did Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg and Kerry Hannon), highlighted two employers that had earned an Age Smart Employers Award — an initiative of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and its partners to highlight firms valuing workers of all ages.

One of them, Brooks Brothers, has a 219-person Long Island factory, more than half of whom are over 55. Luis Nava, who manages it, said the company values older workers, especially because they make few mistakes. In return, he’s willing to let them take greater control of their schedules. Also, he said, “we pair older workers with usually a younger person with technical experience. We’re better off combining experience with technical expertise.”

At Age Smart Employer winner Metro Optics, an ophthalmic services company based in The Bronx, about a third of the workers are 50+. “The older employees train the younger ones,” said the company’s co-founder, John Bonzio. “It works the other way, too.”

Overall, the U.S. labor force participation rate of Americans 65 and older in 2014 was roughly 19 percent, up from about 12 percent in 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Helping to make workers in their 50s, 60s and beyond more enticing to employers: economists, psychologists and gerontologists who’ve been documenting their benefits lately. They’re demolishing shibboleths about older workers and their supposed lack of creative insight and productive contribution.

Americans Over 50: Assets, Not Liabilities

At the same time, life coaches, encore career coaches and social entrepreneurs are encouraging boomers to combine the search for meaning and money at this stage of life. “We’re trying to get society to understand that people over 50 are an asset, not a liability,” says Jim McGinley, encore fellows ambassador for Social Venture Partners, based in Seattle.

Several scholars at Age Boom Academy said economic and demographic forces will also push employers to, if not, hug an aging workforce than at least hire and hang onto it. Employers, they said, will be forced into the realization that with a looming labor shortage coming, they won’t be able to afford to ignore dynamic, experienced and creative older workers.

The Labor Shortage’s Effects

“The only thing that makes the employer move is a sense that there is a lack of qualified labor,” said Ursula Staudinger, a Columbia professor of sociomedical sciences and psychology and founding director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center. “Then they become very creative and inventive with their employees.”

Ursula Staudinger
Ursula Staudinger

Added Nicole Maestas, associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School: “Ten years from now, the presence of demographic pressures associated with aging will be even more significant. Many more firms will be struggling to retain workers.”

Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute and another Age Boom Academy panelist, agreed. With the pool of younger workers declining, he noted, boomers and Gen X’ers will become increasingly valuable to employers. “More and more of jobs will have to filled by older workers,” said Steuerle, a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department.

These expert forecasts may be too conservative, however. There’s widespread demand among business for skilled workers NOW. And corporate chieftains will find that the quickest way to maintain and boost skill levels is to retain and hire older experienced workers — especially as the realization sinks in that these workers can be productive and creative well into their 60s and 70s.

Retiring Boomers: A Staffing Challenge

As The New Talent Landscape: Recruiting Difficulty and Skills Shortages, a June 2016 report from the Society for Human Resource Management  or SHRM (the trade group for HR pros) said: replacing “retiring Baby Boomers will continue to be a key staffing challenge in the years ahead. Organizations that can continue to engage their mature workforce and even retain them beyond retirement age will have an advantage.”

Nevertheless, the survey noted a “lack of formal long-term forecasting, planning and assessment related to changing workforce demographics and an aging workforce.”

In other words, many employers are saying: Wake me when the labor shortage is here.

Next year’s report might tell a different story, though.

Dearth of Qualified Workers

That’s because with the unemployment rate at 4.9 percent and a record 69 months of job gains (287,000 more in June), management has been complaining more loudly lately about a dearth of qualified workers. According to the Talent Landscape report, half of HR professionals surveyed say job applicants show some degree of deficit in basic skills and knowledge, while 84 percent said applicants lack desired applied skills. A number of industry leaders expressed worry about a shortage of new workers to replace aging boomer employees. (Here’s an example drawn from the oil industry.)

The blueprints are available for copying the likes of the Age Smart Employers, however, as demographic, economic and cultural forces for change feed off and reinforce one another. In practical terms, the common thread to the innovative programs is an emphasis on flexibility, which allows for smarter ways to integrate work and home responsibilities. Flexible work schedules focus on getting the job done rather than where it is done.

The Significance of Flexible Schedules

Flexible schedules appeal not just to older workers, but younger ones, too. “If employers would accelerate the drive for flexible work arrangements, everyone would be better off,” said Richard Johnson, labor economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Flexibility is important.” In fact, an April 2016 SHRM report, Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement, surveyed U.S. employees and found that 90 percent considered “flexibility to balance life and work issues” important, but only 65 percent were satisfied with such flexibility at their jobs.

This desire for flexibility that employers will be forced to abide reflects a much larger movement in America: breaking down the traditional life course of working full-time until a certain age — say, 65 — before hitting retirement full-stop.

With work and the search for meaning intertwined in the modern economy, older Americans will be more willing to shift from full-time to part-time, self-employment, volunteer and leisure activities throughout their adult lives.

“Aging and old age has been different in the past and it will be different for our children and grandchildren,” said Staudinger at the Age Boom Academy. And in the vanguard of redefining both aging and old age are the boomers. Employers — if they’re smart — won’t be far behind.

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