There’s a new type of generation gap in America’s workplace.
I'm talking about the gap between what older workers want from their jobs and what their employers actually offer, according to Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.
“It’s not enough to say we need to find jobs for older adults,” Pitt-Catsouphes told me. “They’re looking for quality jobs.”
The Older-Worker Gap
But when The Sloan Center asked employees age 50 and older at large companies about eight quality of employment measures in its Generations of Talent survey, it found an enormous gulf between what was important to them and brought job satisfaction and how well they felt employers were delivering.
(MORE: 4 in 5 Workers Say They Need New Job Skills)
I heard Pitt-Catsouphes discuss these findings at the recent Aging in America 2014 conference of the American Society on Aging in San Diego and just followed up, interviewing her about what employers could — and should — do to satisfy older workers and what people in their 50s and 60s should do to become more satisfied on the job.
What Matters Most to Older Workers
The 50+ workers surveyed said the most important element for a quality job wasn’t pay and benefits (that ranked third). It was “promotion of constructive relationships at the workplace," which basically means receiving support from your supervisors and coworkers. Or, as Pitt-Catsouphes describes it, “relationships that help you get the work done in a positive way."
Both men and women over 50 were generally satisfied on that score.
Second in importance was “opportunities for meaningful work.” That refers to whether you think: your skills and experience are valued and used well; you’re making a difference in the world and your job provides opportunities for the things you value personally.
Meaningful work is a key reason many professional men and women over 60 haven’t retired, according to surveys by Elizabeth Fideler for her books Men Still at Work and Women Still at Work.
“Both men and women said that making a difference was high up on their lists” for job satisfaction, Fideler told me.
(MORE: 7 Ways to Prove Your Value at Work After 50)
But about a third of the older workers that The Sloan Center surveyed weren’t satisfied with opportunities for meaningful work.
What Older Workers Are Least Satisfied About
Older workers were the least satisfied about these two factors, which are closely related:
Opportunities for Development, Learning and Advancement Just 40 percent of men and 43 percent of women were satisfied. “Historically, this has been a problem for older workers,” says Pitt-Catsouphes. “People tend to get most of their training earlier in their careers.”
Provisions for Employment Security and Predictabilities Only 37 percent of men and a mere 26 percent of women were satisfied. “Provisions for employment security and predictability” isn’t about a fear of layoffs. “It’s about whether the workers feel the experience and skills they’ve accumulated would make them employable, versus working for a company where the tasks are so unique that if you lose your job, you’re up a creek,” says Pitt-Catsouphes. “Or your field is dying, so your skills wouldn’t be wanted.”
The older you get, she adds, the more you worry about whether the job you’re prepared for will be a job for the future.
What Employers Need to Do
Pitt-Catsouphes thinks employers need to step up their game to increase older workers' satisfaction for both of these quality of employment factors.
“We hear in focus groups with older workers that, in theory, there are learning opportunities available to everybody but in reality, they’re designed with early-career employees in mind,” Pitt-Catsouphes said at the Aging in America conference.
When Sloan surveyed U.S. employers, 40 percent said they were offering too few training programs for older workers.
“A lot of employers make the assumption that older workers are either not interested in learning and training or — worst case — get annoyed about having to learn something new,” she says. “But that’s not the case. They want to be challenged and learn new things.”
They also need to.
In a recent LinkedIn survey, 62 percent of boomers who are at the end of their career said they were in need of new job skills, according to an AOL Jobs article by Dan Fastenberg.
When older employees feel they haven’t kept their skills up, they’re in “a very vulnerable situation,” says Pitt-Catsouphes. “They kind of feel out of it when projects come up and they put themselves off to the side.”
What Employees Need to Do
She believes U.S. employers need to “promote a culture of learning” for staffers of all ages. “Maybe they need to invest at least as much in their older workers as their younger ones,” says Pitt-Catsouphes.
In the meantime, she adds, older employees need to tell their employers what would help them be more productive and contribute more at work.
And she urges employees — and self-employed people — in their 50s and 60s to take the initiative and look for ways to keep current and ensure their employability.
“That could mean learning online or going to workshops at local libraries and community centers,” she says. “It’s not just about keeping your skills up, but also about having a sense of confidence that ‘I can do this.’”