Unlike previous generations, the massive Boomer cohort is leaving the workforce at the rate of 3 million people a year and will do so for the next 12 years. No longer young, they are facing insecure prospects in retirement. They brought multiple changes to the workplace, from flexible work to parental leave for their young families. Now they face different challenges. As a Wall Street Journal reports, “A Generation of Americans is Entering Old Age the Least Prepared in Decades.” They face diminished pensions, recession-depleted savings, and stagnant and threatened Social Security payments.
In these times of tight labor markets and the potential loss of critical skills and knowledge, companies can meet major talent goals and avoid brewing conflict by re-thinking their approach to their aging workforce with a phased retirement approach in place. Now is the time to do a broad review of your company’s policies and practices. Think about the following questions:
- Do you have unexamined and arbitrary mandatory retirement ages?
- Is career-long training offered to all employees to enhance their value as they age?
- Do you offer flexible and phased retirement to capture departing knowledge?
- Are your hiring systems designed to be talent-focused and age-blind?
Flexible ways of working have been mainstreamed. Boomers championed them and millennials expect them. Resistant employers have embraced the once-controversial practice of work-at-home. Millions do it one or two days a week and tens of thousands work offsite full-time. Flextime is a near-universal phenomenon. And a whole generation of women has better balanced work and family with access to regular part-time work.
In the midst of this great progress, the practice of phased retirement remains truly stuck. What can explain this triumph of tradition over progress? In the face of the widely celebrated longevity that has added decades of life to our citizens, isn’t the continuing commitment to premature dismissal of talent a step backward?
Four Common Objections
Individual employers likely have their own reasons for ignoring the positive potential of change in their stance toward aging workers. Here are four consistent objections are repeatedly raised:
- Aging workers, like capital equipment, have a clear shelf life.
- Managing “part-timers” is challenging at any age, but expensive in twilight years.
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks—and it’s unpleasant to do.
- Structural barriers in compensation & benefits and fear of age discrimination reign.
Assumptions Are Dangerous
Old assumptions have stood in the way of all flexible work. Two decades ago one heard deeply felt beliefs, such as “If I let people work from home, won’t they be less productive?” or “If everyone is coming in and leaving at different hours, won’t that lead to anarchy?” The reality of broad usage has largely laid these fears to rest.
Lacking deep and wide experience with flexible and phased retirement, how does one address the four main objections mentioned above?
- Human capital has a clear sell-by date. While the phrase human capital has ebbed and flowed in common usage, it captures a way of thinking about the “natural’” depreciation of people as a factor of production. We have made progress in setting aside group generalizations about women or people of color, yet aging and older workers are fair game for stereotypic thinking. And in an era of greater health and longevity, and less physically demanding work, the assumption of people “wearing out” early becomes myth.
- Managing older part-timers isn’t worth it. Employers and managers have wrestled with managing non-standard schedules for decades. Many, many managers have told me that they are willing to make “sacrifices” for younger, high potential women from whom they hope to get a return. Enabling managers to be better managers addresses these and other problems and reframing the value aging workers is essential. (And well-managed aging workers are far more likely to remain with an employer than the much sought-after millennials.)
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. As every dog owner knows, training them at any age requires clear goals, commitment, and energy. New hires are not necessarily technologically adept nor are all aging workers tech-resistant. Under-investment in training for the whole workforce is an invitation to later gaps.
- Structural barriers and the fear of age discrimination rule out change. This tired trope is the last refuge of resistance when all else falls away. Employers take on and defeat more perplexing challenges every year and the handful of companies that have decided to implement phased retirement programs have either not encountered or designed around these issues.
It is well past time to address these issues. These and other practices that support an aging workforce are feasible and affordable. In the end, the best defense against age discrimination accusations and potential litigation is truly inclusive behavior. It is not too late—and may be the perfect time—to discard old assumptions and practices and give your company and aging workforce a second chance.