Over the last decade, most HR leaders have been obsessed by the role of millennials at work and figuring out how to meet the different expectations and needs of these young workers.
Certainly, this has been important work. But, leaders need to be aware of a much bigger demographic challenge ahead: the role of people over the age of 55.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in the next 10 years, the fastest growing segments of the workforce will be for employees over 65. According to AARP, Americans 55 and older make up slightly less than a quarter of the nation’s labor force, but they filled almost half (49 percent) of the 2.9 million jobs gained in 2018—the biggest share of any age group.
This trend will continue. We are living longer and having fewer children. The fertility rates in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Japan, and almost every other developed country are below replacement. As a result, populations—and our workforces—are going to get older.
Obviously, this has an impact on public policy, immigration, and healthcare investments. But the more interesting aspect for those of us in HR is the huge impact this will have on work.
Attitudes About Age
How do most employers feel about older people? They aren’t that thrilled to have them around. While older employees may be wiser and more reliable, they usually make more money than younger workers. Many employers believe older workers can’t keep up with today’s always-on digital workplace.
A few years ago, we asked employers whether age was a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage in their company. Almost 60 percent of respondents said that age was a disadvantage. In other words, when a young employee competes with an older employee for a job, the young person wins.
This discriminatory perception was summed up perfectly by Mark Zuckerberg in 2007 when he said in an interview, “Younger people are just smarter.”
I’ve seen this in my own personal life. Many of my friends from college (we’re all in our early 60s) are starting to think about retiring, primarily because they’ve been forced out of their companies. Most of us will live well into our 80s, 90s, or longer, and as we age, work becomes one of the most gratifying things we do. But employers just don’t see it this way.
According to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute and ProPublica, more than half of workers over 50 lose longtime jobs before they are ready to retire. Of those, 9 out of 10 never recover their previous earning power. Why? Employers simply do not want them back.
Companies are now being sued for age discrimination. Recruiters have been caught saying things like “you’re too old for this job” or “we only hire people with less than seven years of experience.” Even Facebook has been forced to remove age as a criterion for job placements in its online advertisements.
The above are examples of explicit discrimination. However, in most companies, age discrimination is much more subtle. Older people have higher salaries, so they are just passed over for many positions.
New Ideas for Older Workers
But change is ahead. Not only does age discrimination fly in the face of most diversity and inclusion programs, but the reality is that employers really need older workers because of record unemployment rates and extreme talent shortages.
“Re-careering” programs—in which employers invite retirees back to work, give them training and new skills, and let them work part time—are cropping up in companies such as Boeing, Bank of America, and Apple. I encourage all employers to invest this way.
Business leaders also need to keep in mind that baby boomers are the biggest buying population in the world and has as much disposable income as the rest of the population combined. These consumers want to do business with organizations that respect older individuals and don’t view age as a negative.
Think about your company’s attitudes about age. Older workers are often more stable, they understand how to work in teams, and they are likely to be more loyal over time. Generational diversity in workforces is also reflective of good corporate citizenship.
Now is the time for HR leaders to work to actively eliminate age discrimination in their workforces and view generational diversity as a valuable goal.
For more research from Josh Bersin, view the report The Alternative Workforce: Not So Alternative Anymore.