Why Aren’t Older Workers Getting Those Age-Friendly Jobs?
A surprising study suggests there’s a significant difference between age-friendly jobs and age-friendly employers
There's good news and weird news when it comes to age-friendly jobs in America.
The good news, according to a recent research paper, "The Rise of Age-Friendly Jobs," by three noted economists, is that between 1990 and 2020, roughly three-quarters of U.S. occupations increased their age-friendliness. Specifically, employment in what these economists call "above-average age-friendly occupations" rose by 49 million over that 30-year period.
A Head-Scratching Finding
"I thought there'd be an increase in the number of age-friendly jobs, but I was staggered at how big the increase was," says Andrew Scott, a London Business School economics professor who wrote the paper with MIT's Daron Acemoglu and Nicolaj Søndergaard Mühlbach of the McKinsey consulting firm.
"Non-college grads, and particularly male non-grads, are losing out."
Now for the weird part: You'd expect that older workers — age 50 and older — would be the big beneficiaries of the rise in age-friendly jobs, but they aren't. Despite a 33.1 million rise in people employed in the most age-friendly occupations from 1990 to 2020, only 15.2 million were workers over 50.
The paper's researchers found that age-friendly jobs have disproportionately gone to younger women and college graduates of all ages.
"Non-college grads, and particularly male non-grads, are losing out. They tend to work in the least age-friendly jobs," says Scott, co-author of "The 100-Year Life" and "The New Long Life."
What's going on here?
Definition of 'Age-Friendly' Jobs
To answer that, it helps to know what the three economists say makes a job "age-friendly."
To create their Age-Friendliness Index, they matched nine job attributes (schedule flexibility, telecommuting, physical demands, the pace of work, autonomy, paid time off, working in teams, job training and meaningful work) with data from the U.S. Department of Labor's O*NET program, the nation's primary source of occupational information.
The Index calculated the age-friendliness of jobs based on earlier studies showing that older workers generally prefer jobs with greater autonomy, more moderate physical activity, flexible schedules, shorter commutes and the opportunity to telecommute. In one study, older workers said they'd be willing to accept a 20% cut in pay in exchange for flexible work.
You can probably see where this is all going.
Age-Friendly or Worker-Friendly?
Age-friendly jobs are actually worker-friendly jobs. The most age-friendly jobs in 2020, researchers found, included HR managers, insurance salespeople, receptionists and reservations agents.
Some "age-friendly" job factors are especially attractive to women. "Scheduling flexibility has, I think, a great benefit for people who are also the primary caregivers of their children or their older parents," says Debra Sabatini Hennelly, founder and president of the workplace consulting firm Resiliti.
Hennelly, an advocate for older workers, recently co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article titled "Bridging Generational Divides in Your Workplace" with Bradley Schurman, author of "The Super Age."
How to Be Age-Friendly
In the article, Hennelly and Schurman said businesses let too many older workers go during the pandemic due to "early retirements, a caustic mix of ageism and cost-cutting measures."
One takeaway from Scott's age-friendly-jobs paper: There's a significant difference between age-friendly jobs and age-friendly employers.
Employers are increasingly offering age-friendly jobs to attract and keep workers of all ages. But being an age-friendly employer means being willing to hire, train and retain people over 50; to encourage a multigenerational workforce; and to avoid ageist policies and practices.
Scott was cheered by rapid growth in age-friendly occupations but told me he believes much more work is needed to cultivate age-friendly employers.
"We've seen an evolution in the space toward more age-friendly jobs, but not a great success in firms switching to become age-friendly employers," he says.
There's a significant difference between age-friendly jobs and age-friendly employers.
Tips for Older Job Seekers
Scott and Hennelly shared two pieces of advice to job hunters over 50 due to the growth of age-friendly jobs but the inadequate number of age-friendly employers:
1. Research whether an employer or industry you're considering truly is age friendly. Research whether it practices age discrimination in job hiring and retention. "Is there an occupation that has less age discrimination?" says Scott.
Hennelly suggests a surprising way to unearth this kind of information: look at employers' ESG reports online. ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance; these types of reports were formerly called corporate social responsibility or sustainability reports.
"The S in ESG is all about how you treat your workforce, right?" asks Hennelly. "There are ESG reports now that specifically call out age inclusivity."
But Hennelly notes, you're more likely to find U.K. and European companies noting their age inclusivity in their ESG reports than U.S. companies. You can find these reports through an online search.
Also, review AARP's list of 1,000+ employers that have taken its "age-friendly pledge" and the hundreds in the Age-Friendly Institute's "Certified Age-Friendly Employer Program."
2. When interviewing for a job, be proactive about the advantages you'd bring to the employer as an older worker. "The number one business argument I would make is that you can help address the employer's turnover problem," says Hennelly. Note that if you get the job, you plan to stay a long time.
"Mature workers are less likely to change jobs compared to younger workers," according to a recent OECD report, "Retaining Talent at All Ages."
Hennelly says hiring older workers with wisdom and experience lets younger workers learn from them and avoid mistakes the 50+ workers have seen — or even made — in the past.
If the hiring manager assumes you are "overqualified" or that you will demand too much pay, "head that off," she advises. "Just say, 'I'll bet you're wondering why someone with my level of expertise would be interested in this job.'"
Why You Might Work for Less
In their Harvard Business Review article, Hennelly and Schurman urge employers to "recognize and encourage younger managers who don't write off older candidates as 'overqualified' or question why they would apply for a role that seems to be 'beneath' them."
If you're willing to work for less money than your last job — perhaps in exchange for less management responsibility — say so, advises Hennelly.
Hiring more older workers who are willing to accept less pay helps employers rein in labor costs, Scott says. In the big picture, he adds, reduced pressure to raise employee wages can lead to lower inflation nationally.