In today’s environment of rapid change, forward-thinking organizations recognize the need for strategic workforce planning. Aligning talent strategy with the business strategy leads to smooth succession planning, increases the organization’s ability to respond to growth opportunities, ensures appropriate transfer of critical knowledge and intellectual property, and improves overall organizational performance.
However, there is one cohort that is often overlooked in workforce planning – the older worker or “late-stage careerist.” There is a lot of talk about gender bias, racial bias and culture bias at work, and each of these are important issues. But perhaps one of the most problematic types of bias we face is the bias of age: we often evaluate people based on their age and this is becoming a major challenge in the workplace.
Demographics in the U.S. and other developed nations point to a workforce that is aging at a rapid rate. People age 60 and over are expected to outnumber children under the age of 5 within the next year, and by 2025, it is expected that 25% of workers in the U.S. will be over the age of 55. Since 2018, job vacancies have outnumbered job applicants, largely as a result of baby boomers reaching retirement at a rate faster than millennials or Gen Z are able to step in to replace them.
These statistics reflect two clear demographic trends. First, people are living longer – in the U.S., the average life expectancy was 47 in 1900; it is 79 years today, and by the end of the 21st century it may be 100 or longer. Second, young people are having fewer children and fertility rates are declining throughout the industrialized world. These trends, coupled with stagnating gains in productivity rates, paint a worrisome picture for economic growth.
A potential solution lies with the older worker, and a compelling business argument can be made to hire and retain late-stage career workers and give them meaningful and important jobs. Research suggests that age does correspond with workplace wisdom. For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise – the main predictors of job performance – keep increasing even beyond the age of 80. And beyond the value and competence older employees can bring to the workforce, there is the issue of cognitive diversity. The vast majority of societal advancements – whether in science, business, sports or the arts – are the result of people working together as a cohesive unit. The best way to maximize team output is to get people of different ages and experiences working together.
People of every age are motivated to come to work and are capable of making meaningful contributions. As the global economy ages, addressing the issue of age bias will become even more important. Follow the lead of progressive companies who are using many of the following strategies to make the workplace more welcoming for older employees:
- Bring age diversity into your Diversity & Inclusion programs – research shows that age-diverse teams feel more psychological safety and innovation than teams which are age-biased. Age brings a sense of security and wisdom to teams.
- Teach younger leaders about reverse mentoring – show them how they can help older people and understand how to manage older employees, who have biases of their own.
- Offer accommodations for flexible work – this includes more accessible workstations with more light, larger fonts, and ease of access that can help support the needs of people of all ages.
- Look at pay equity by job and level, not by tenure – tenure is a useful measure for pay when it directly translates into experience and skills that bring value to the company. It’s more than okay for an older person to make less money than a younger person if they are new to the job.
- Recruit – or “return” – older people – many leading companies – GM, Boeing, Walgreens – invite older workers to come back from retirement through specific programs tailored to the aging and branded as “returnships.” Other companies welcome older workers into volunteer or “ambassador” programs.
- Support retirement planning – many older employees have retirement on their minds, even while still in the workforce. Most organizations offer financial planning tools and vehicles but fail to recognize the life-altering shift that comes with retirement. Programs like New Horizons™ take a wholistic view of retirement to better prepare workers, easing their concerns and ensuring continued engagement and productivity.
These are just a few examples, but they point to a broader challenge and opportunity for both company executives and HR leaders: If you can create an inclusive, fair and meaningful experience for older workers, as well as younger ones, you will not only find your company becomes more innovative, engaging and profitable over time, you will also be benefiting society at large.
Vice President, Senior Executive Services