COVID-19 and the Future of Aging: Prospects for Older Workers
An AARP executive on jobs, flexible work and intergenerational unity
(This article is the third in a weekly joint series on COVID-19 and the Future of Aging from the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and Next Avenue. The articles are Q and As with thought leaders in fields ranging from health care to retirement planning to work to intergenerational relationships.)
Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging: How can older and younger employees work together in this new landscape, and how can employers facilitate intergenerational cohesion, given the loss of traditional shared spaces for interaction and collaboration?
Scott Frisch: Facilitating collaboration across generational lines is good for the bottom line. A multigenerational workforce, with four or five generations working alongside each other — physically or virtually — helps to ensure business continuity and organizational resilience.
So how do we encourage interaction and collaboration?
Employers can stimulate intergenerational collaboration by dispelling harmful stereotypes about older workers, including that older employees can only thrive in a traditional workspace.
Employers need to be highly intentional when it comes to understanding and utilizing age diversity to keep the workforce engaged. Employers should make sure they consider age diversity when creating project teams and setting in motion work streams in the virtual environment. Employers should connect younger workers with older mentors who have weathered storms and can provide emotional support.
Setting up mentor-mentee relationships is a great way to develop intergenerational cohesion. When people get to know each other one-on-one, work together and learn from each other, they can form bonds extending to many aspects of work.
Employers can also stimulate intergenerational collaboration by dispelling harmful stereotypes about older workers, including the stereotype that older employees can only thrive in a traditional workspace.
The massive move to telework has produced a valuable lesson: The image of older workers as technophobes is wrong and counterproductive.
Workers across the age span have proven adept at teleworking. This realization will have lasting consequences. At the same time, younger workers are more likely to be mentors in tech solutions, just as many older workers can share their institutional knowledge and experience.
An age-based digital gap is easily caricatured, but it is shrinking as various age cohorts grow older and technology becomes ubiquitous. Discarding the notion of older workers as technophobes would be a healthy development in a very troubled year.
What can employers do to plan for a recovery that is inclusive of workers of all ages and leaves behind harmful stereotypes of older workers?
Flexibility in work arrangements has been a hallmark of 2020. Flexibility should be a central part of recovery. All generations appreciate flexibility. Our collective experience during the pandemic has shown that flexibility does not hurt productivity.
A key element of an inclusive recovery is helping employees of all ages and all life stages achieve a work/life balance where they can meet their responsibilities to their family and their job.
Caregiving is a compelling example where we need to look through the life stage lens. While many think of this as a challenge facing older workers, almost a quarter of family caregivers are millennials.
Organizations benefit from the various perspectives and experiences found in a multigenerational workforce. Employers should recognize what older employees bring to age-inclusive organizations, including critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, communication, wisdom, patience, experience and institutional knowledge. Acting on that recognition will speed the recovery.
Through the AARP Employer Pledge program, a nationwide group of employers is affirming the value of experienced workers and committing to developing diverse organizations. More than 1,000 employers have signed the pledge, and we encourage others to do so.
What are the potential long-term impacts on older workers and their careers?
For many older workers, there will likely be a substantial long-term impact.
The New School Retirement Equity Lab reports that almost three million workers age 55-70 lost their jobs because of COVID-19, a figure about 50% higher than job loss for this group from the Great Recession.
Data from the Great Recession shows that older workers who lose their jobs took about twice the time to find a new one as younger workers. Few got a bump in salary in the new position; most never made what they made previously.
We expect many older workers will become freelancers or gig workers.
A Harris poll for Ameritrade found that among boomers, 9% have retired because of the pandemic, and an additional 14% are considering retirement for that reason. Retirement earlier than anticipated will mean loss of income, and in many cases, earlier drawdown of retirement income and taking Social Security at an earlier time and in a lower amount than they had planned.
On the other hand, the pandemic has caused many older workers to delay or consider delaying retirement.
The same Harris poll said that 16% of boomers reported delaying retirement, and an additional 21% reported they are considering taking that step.
Both working longer and retiring early can have significant consequences for health and wealth. Employers need to provide resources to assist employees considering their options, and create conditions that signal to older adults their continued value in a multigenerational workforce.