Older workers offer better value than younger workers

Just a decade ago, experts warned of labour shortages in the United States and other countries as the baby boomers marched into retirement en masse. But with an aging population facing the prospect of living for decades on shrunken retirement funds, greying individuals plan to keep on working.

This “silver tsunami” as it is being called has received a mixed response in the workplace. On the one hand, many employers have been slow to adapt to the changing needs of older workers and perceive them to be costly and troublesome to hire. Data shows that people over the age of 55 find it harder to land jobs than their younger counterparts, even though age discrimination is illegal in many countries. On the other hand, some far-sighted companies around the world are working to recruit, retrain and otherwise engage older workers.

Such workers bring a lifetime of skills to their jobs and can be highly motivated and productive members of the workplace, according to Wharton professors. Many of the stereotypes that prevent employers from hiring and making good use of older workers are merely myths. Among the most frequent ones:

MYTH. Older workers cost more than younger ones and are less productive on the job.

REALITY. Both concerns are untrue. While older workers may take longer to recover from injuries, studies show that they use fewer sick days on the whole than their younger counterparts. Health care costs are actually less for older workers, because most no longer have small children as dependents on their health care plans.

When it comes to job performance, older workers frequently outdo their younger colleagues. Older workers have less absenteeism, less turnover, superior interpersonal skills and deal better with customers. Basically, older workers perform better on just about everything.

MYTH. People at or near retirement age tend to lose interest in their jobs.

REALITY. Studies find the opposite to be true. In a report titled, “Working in Retirement: A 21st Century Phenomenon,” the Sloan Centre on Aging & Work at Boston College reported that those who worked past retirement age became more, rather than less, engaged and satisfied with their jobs. And contrary to the belief that older workers resist learning new things, older workers ranked “job challenge and learning” as a top source of satisfaction with their work.

MYTH. Older workers in the workforce keep younger ones from getting jobs.

REALITY. While it may be a widespread belief that you have to get older people to retire to open up the career ladder and jobs for young people, the opposite again is true. Policies in countries that encourage workers to retire early actually have a damaging impact on youth employment. This is because the growing number of retirees forces governments to finance their rising pension costs by raising taxes, which causes employers to scale back hiring or pay workers less. In such cases, employers don’t want to hire the young. The old notion of a fixed sum of jobs is just absolutely wrong.”

The notion of retiring at age 65 came in with the Social Security system and employer-based pensions. But full retirement was never what most employees wanted. They want to change the way they work, but not stop altogether. Studies show that older workers are looking for flexible jobs that have a climate of respect, work-life fit, supervisor support and learning opportunities. Employers who fail to realize this may be missing the chance to create environments to leverage the skills and competency of older workers.

Attitudes toward older workers do appear to be gradually changing. Employers that accommodate older workers can find a ready pool of talent for jobs that might otherwise go unfilled. A study sponsored by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a think tank that helps people find “encore careers,” predicts as many as five million job vacancies by 2018 if the baby boomers retire at the same rate and age as current older workers. Many of these vacancies will be in social service fields such as health care, education and non-profit positions. Not only will there be jobs for older workers to fill, but the nation will absolutely need older workers to step up and take them.

Boomers who cannot find the right fit may create their own jobs. There are a lot of people out there who want to stay engaged, and if no employer will hire them they will create businesses for themselves. They may well be employers and not just workers.