As a member of the growing cohort of older workers myself, this subject is close to my heart, and I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that put the reasons to hire older workers far more eloquently than I can. In fact, Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic seem like the kind of guys you’d have a great conversation with on a long plane trip.
But I digress.
Bersin and Chamorro-Premuzic contend—and this is backed up by research—that our tendency to evaluate people based on age is becoming problematic in the workplace. “In other words, if you are older, you are likely to be considered less capable, less able to adapt, or less willing to roll up your sleeves and do something new than your younger peers.”
Demographics explain why this is happening. First, we’re living longer. Live expectancy is now 79 years and will most likely reach 100 by the end of the century. Second, young people in places like the U.S., the U.K., and Japan are having fewer children. The only way their economies can address this trend is to improve productivity, which the authors say is not happening, or through immigration, which is a highly charged topic.
So, what to do?
Bring older workers back to work—at “meaningful, important jobs.” Work is an antidote to the malaise many retired people feel, malaise that can lead to depression and death. So many people are still involved with their jobs, deriving a sense of purpose from them. Look at the seniors—noxious term, eh? —who are still kickin’ and still worthy of respect for their efforts.
Older people compensate in expertise and knowledge for a diminution in mental horsepower (which begins after the age of 30.) They are often surprisingly entrepreneurial and yet less driven by the need to prove themselves.
Top Tips for Companies
Here’s a quick review of the authors’ ideas that I like the best. For the rest, read the article, which is well worth the few minutes it will take you.
- “Give older people titles and roles that let them contribute their expertise.” You can do this without offering higher pay, which neatly counters the argument that older people are “too expensive.” I think that older workers would be so happy to be considered valuable that they wouldn’t quibble over compensation.
- “Bring age diversity into your DEI programs.” The authors note that one of their studies showed that age-diverse teams feel more psychological safety and a sense of innovation than age-biased teams. Could this be because older people may be able to moderate an often-unkind and inappropriate sense of competitiveness among younger members? (My thought.)
- “Recruit older people.” Make a point of this and mobilize storytelling skills to share the success of returned older workers.
Now, a story of my own
Recently, I spent some time in a smallish southern city. One morning, as I was waiting to pay for breakfast at the fabulous City Diner, I fell into conversation with an older guy named Clyde. He was, he said, back to work after retiring a few years before. Initially, after leaving the workplace, everything was fine. He resurfaced his driveway, put up new gutters, landscaped his backyard, updated plumbing fixtures, volunteered some, and did a host of other things he’d procrastinated on for years.
Then, one day, he was done. Nothing else to do, except watch TV. Until he started thinking about his late uncle. In retirement, that worthy fellow did a few small chores in the morning, after bidding his still-working wife goodbye. Then he watched TV. Until one day, he didn’t. “The day after his funeral, I decided to go back to work,” said Clyde. “Everyone who knew my uncle knew where he spent most of his time. So I decided the Grim Reaper would have to come and find me.”