The U.S. unemployment rate for Americans 55 and older just edged up to 6.3 percent, from 6.2 percent in March. That’s less than the overall unemployment rate of 8.1 percent, but it's still pretty steep.
The rough times many Americans in their 50s or older face — trying to find work or to avoid getting pushed out their employer's door — made me wonder what other countries and companies abroad are doing to attract and keep older workers.
The Aging Global Workforce
It’s no secret that many nations, including ours, will see their populations age dramatically over the next few decades. Today, 14 percent of the global workforce is over 55, but by 2030, that figure will rise to 22 percent, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
The European Union has dubbed 2012 “The European Year for Active Aging and Solidarity Between Generations” to encourage older workers to stay on the job by improving their working conditions and offering them tax and benefit incentives to work longer. But the truth is, the workplace is often not conducive to getting the same sort of productivity from an older worker than from a younger one. That, in turn, means reduced opportunities for older people to stay on or to get hired. And very few foreign companies or countries are coming up with new ideas to deal with the aging workforce.
“CEOs always think they have something more important to deal with,” says Julia Moulden, author of Ripe: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50. According to Moulden, policymakers in Denmark, the United Kingdom and Japan are “further down the road” than their counterparts in the United States when it comes to thinking about ways to lure and keep older workers. But even in those countries, she says, it’s still mostly talk.
Even so, I did come across two intriguing examples of new ideas for older workers — in Germany and Australia.
BMW Reinvents the Assembly Line
Next Avenue writer Chris Farrell tipped me off to the ways BMW creatively overhauled one of its assembly lines in Bavaria in 2007 to make it more older-worker friendly. (One-quarter of BMW’s workforce is over 50, and the company expects 45 percent will be by 2020.)
As a Harvard Business Review article explains, BMW spent $50,000 to make 70 small changes, ranging from adding chairs so workers could perform certain tasks seated to enlarging the typeface on computer screens. Then BMW staffed the assembly line with older workers like the ones it expects will be typical in 2030. Some critics dubbed this the “pensioner’s assembly line.”
A Successful Experiment for Older Workers
The assembly line’s productivity rose 7 percent in a year, raising it to the level of BMW assembly lines with younger workers. Absenteeism dropped dramatically, from 7 percent to 2 percent, below the plant average.
The experiment was so successful, in fact, that last year BMW built an entirely new factory with modifications geared toward older employees, and staffed it exclusively with workers over 50.
Australia’s Bonus for Hiring Older Workers
Half a world away, the Australian government just announced a program starting in July that would allot $10 million to give employers bonuses of $1,000 for every worker 50 or older they bring on for at least three months, with a maximum of 10,000 bonuses overall.
The bonus idea came about after a government study found that older workers in Australia have lower absentee rates and stay in their jobs longer than younger ones, but that employers are reluctant to hire them, according to The Telegraph. The study’s chairman, Everald Compton, said that older Australians faced “massive discrimination” and were often treated as “over the hill” and unemployable.
Some observers think the $1,000 bonuses are a terrible idea.
Philip Taylor, a professor at Australia’s Monash University and an authority on age and labor markets, is not a fan. “By drawing attention to older workers in this fashion, policymakers may simply be alerting employers of the need to be wary of a particular segment of the workforce,” he wrote in The Canberra Times. “Such an approach is, by its very nature, ageist, and can in fact further erode self-worth by categorizing some people as ‘difficult to employ’ or ‘work shy.’”
Personally, I think that if it takes $1,000 to get companies to hire a worthy, unemployed person age 50 or older, the program is worth a shot.
If you’re considering getting a job in another country, I encourage you to read Dinah Wisenberg Brin’s Next Avenue article, How to Find Work Abroad. She has smart advice about where you can find foreign employment opportunities and how to avoid unpleasant tax surprises when moving out of the United States for work.