Wired for Success

How to fulfill your potential

The Silver Tsunami–Why We Will Need Aging Workers

Why we need aging workers

The recent recession has placed a myopic emphasis on the need to deal with the millions of baby boomers retiring or about to retire in the next few years. In fact, we will need those aging workers. And we need to revise our view of aging, which for the most part, is portrayed in a negative way.

The reality is, the world's population is aging. In a study by the Urban Institute, The Aging Baby Boom: Implications for Employment and Training Programs, concludes that by 2050, the median age of population will be in the following countries: Japan-52, Italy-52, U.K.-43, Finland-46, the U.S. and Canada-42. In the European Union in the next 10 years, the number of workers 50-65 will increase 25% while the percent aged 20-30 will decrease by 20%. Over 1 million people ages 90 to 100 will be working in Japan by 2030.

Currently, about 28% of the U.S. population is 50 or older. Projections show that by 2025, that figure will increase to more than 35%. By 2010, the number of 35-44-year-olds who are normally expected to move into senior management ranks, will actually decline by 10%. Also by 2010, the number of U.S. workers between the ages of 45-54 will grow by 21%, while the number of 55-64-year-olds will expand by 52%.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

There exists a "gray ceiling" image--characterized by burnout, obsolescence, and career plateauing--that keeps many aging workers from reaching their potential. In the workplace, there is an clear age bias where recruiters favor younger applicants. You have only 5 years when most people are free of age bias-35-40. Otherwise, often you are viewed as either too young or too old.

Myths about aging are perpetuated by our media. Do you remember the movie, Cocoon, a movie about old people, which starred Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy all over the age of 70 at the time? When the film's director reviewed the film's early takes, he decided something was wrong. His actors weren't acting like old people-their posture was too straight, step to lively, and speech too clear. So the director hired acting instructors to teach them how to act like much older, less able people.

Aging is no longer viewed as a natural stage of life, but a horror and devastating progression. Why are we as a human race so set on reversing the inevitable? The war on aging is on, but has our obsession gone too far? The statistics show that more and more women are getting facelifts, and they also show that women are becoming interested in the procedure at a younger age. Women are now getting facelifts even as young as in their thirties. According to a report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, procedures such as plastic surgery, Botox and wrinkle fillers are up 99 percent since 2000.

Yet, and this is important, most of the studies of aging have focused on the 5% who are sick or diseased. Actually we have very few studies about physically and mentally HEALTHY aging adults. Biogerentology, the biology of aging, is a science that is only 40 years old. One of the problems of our view of aging is our medical model which focuses on sickness instead of health. In contrast, the new advances in mind-body connection and neuroscience research show great promise in helping people with aging and maintaining good health.

What is the upside to aging? What are some myths that seem to be perpetuated about aging:

  • Myth 1: A significant % of older people are either senile or suffer from dementia. Fact: Only 6-8% of people over the age of 65 have dementia;
  • Myth 2: Older people suffer from rigid thinking. Fact: 41% of people over 65 use the Internet. Brain science shows we can learn easily well into our 90's.
  • Myth 3: Most older people have health problems. Facts: 75% of people aged 65-74 are in good health; over 60% age 75+ are in good health; 40% over age 80 are fully functional.
  • Myth 4: Sexual activity declines significantly with aging: Facts: A recent study showed that 93% of people are sexually active in their 50's; 81% in their 60's and 75% in their 70's.
  • Myth 5: Older people exhibit significant cognitive decline. Fact: A recent study showed that in terms of verbal meaning, inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, numerical ability and word fluency the people studied 50-80 did not show any significant decline

Studies of older workers in the workplace have shown that older workers engage in less unethical and/or criminal activity; have higher levels of participation in politics and volunteerism; have fewer workplace accidents; have better visual acuity; have less conflict with co-workers; have fewer power struggles; are less ego driven; have less health costs than younger workers; have greater loyalty to the organization; have more positive attitudes than younger workers; are more resilient under stress; do better quality work; have less job turnover; are more trainable and have a less net cost compared to younger workers.

Some of the world's great achievements were accomplished by older people, not the youngest geniuses: It was during their "sunset strolls," that Michelangelo, at 88,was designing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica; Stradivarius, in his 90's produced two of his most famous violins; Verdi, when 80, composed the opera "Falstaff;"  Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor at 87; Frank Lloyd Wright was 91 when he designed the Guggenheim Museum; Peter Drucker wrote his famous book on management when he was 89; George Burns was still performing in his 90's; Dr. Seuss was 82 when he wrote one of his last children's books;Olive Riley, believed to be the world's oldest blogger at 108, writes a blog every day;Arthur Winston, 100, worked for 72 years for the same company, Los Angles Metro; Jennifer Figge, 57 was the first woman to swim the Atlantic Ocean; John Whittemore, 104, continued to compete in Track and Field; and John Kelly was still competing in Marathon and Iron man competitions at 97.

We also commonly think of older people as being poor and penniless. But the current senior population possesses over $900 billion in spending money. Nearly a quarter of householders aged 65 to 69 have a net worth of $250,000 or more. Seniors spend more than $30 billion on travel each year. According to George Moschis, of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies, "the 55-plus age group controls more than three-fourths of this country's wealth and the 65-plus group has twice as much per capita income as the average baby boomer."

Businesses do not consider aging people a viable demographic market, community organizations labeled them recipients rather than contributors, and when they were included in commercials, movies or news segments, they are portrayed as unhealthy, unproductive and uninvolved: a burden on the economy and the younger generations.

In "The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife" ,Marc Freedman argues that we need a "new map of life" to deal with this powerful demographic change. Mr. Freedman is founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit research group focused on boomers. He points out that while medical science, improved nutrition and other advances have succeeded in extending our lives, our ability to redefine these longer lives has lagged woefully behind. Freedman wants to broaden the way that people think about this part of life, which he calls the "encore stage." The encore stage is not about "clinging to our lost youth," he says. Rather, it means using one's evolving identity and experience in ways that are characterized by "purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations."

If people live 85 years or longer, does it make sense to put so much pressure on people in their 20s and early 30s to complete their education, form a family, and start a career? A new view of age-related goals and activities may be more sensible.

Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of the Families and Work Institute says that companies need to recreate work places that are multigenerational and that will require rethinking how work is organized, including more flexible work-life arrangements.

One of the critical issues we face in the potential loss of aging workers from the workplace to retirement is the loss of knowledge. A 2006 Ernst and Young study report that companies are more likely to be concerned about knowledge loss and transfer, but they are doing little about it.

A senior nuclear weapons designer retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory after 30 years, leaving no one in the Lab who knows the design of missiles built in the 1950's and 60's, which are still deployed in military bases worldwide. A chemist who invented a new polymer retires and soon afterward his company loses the ability to fix variations in quality manufacturing. A senior sales executive departs from their company with years of detailed relationships with decision-makers and client organizations, which is never recovered with the new sales executives, and business declines by 30%.When a petrochemical explosion occurred at a large plan on the Texas Gulf Coast, an investigation found that the engineers there at the time had all been on the job less than one year. After Boeing offered early retirement to 9,000 senior employees during a business turndown, a subsequent new rush of order for 737's threw the assembly line into chaos with all the new employees they hired. They had to finally shut down the assembly line and lost $1.6 billion in lost orders from customers. More than $24 billion, with 400,00 working on it was invested by NASA over 10 years to make a moon landing.  So why haven't we gone back to the moon? Budgetary constraints and a focus on the Space Station and Shuttles. It's not that the new $50 billion plus price tag of returning the moon is a deterrent. It's that NASA has lost the knowledge of how to do it. Most of the scientists who developed the technology have retired or are dead and were never replaced.

Often, mature workers are left on their own as they near the end of their careers. Most organizations have no career development or professional growth plans for mature workers. A Manpower survey found that just 28% of U.S. companies and 21% of companies worldwide have a strategy for retaining mature workers. A study by the Conference Board showed that 80% of HR executives surveyed were oblivious to the concerns of older workers. An international study by Manpower showed that just 18% of U.S. employers have a strategy to recruit mature employees; Canada 17%; whereas Hong Kong 25% and Singapore, 48%.

There are some organizations doing something about the issue. Companies in Finland, where aging workers is a more significant issue, are taking action. For example, the Abloy lock company, which operates in 40 countries, has 30% of its workers over the age of 55. They have created the designation of Agemaster for these employees, and they are entitled to an assortment of benefits-massages, free memberships in health clubs, free education, all funded by the company, free complete physical exams and fitness tests, and an annual 5 week vacation. And the creation of a mentoring program where all mature workers pass on their knowledge to younger workers before they leave. Finland, which already is facing an aging workforce, has initiated the National Program on Ageing Workers, a 4 year campaign to change public attitudes. The core of that program is the view that work should be adapted to the abilities of aging workers, rather than the other way around.

Westpac Banking Corporation of Australia and New Zealand, recognized for its commitment to corporate social responsibly made it commitment to attract mature workers. They have increased their average age of 45  of their workforce from 20% to 30% in just 5 years.  They have found that absenteeism for mature workers is actually lower than for younger employees. They have also found a larger percentage of mature employees were rated as outstanding or above average in their work compared to employees younger than 45.

At a BMW factory in Germany, management realized workers were getting older. They estimated their employees would soon average age 47. BMW did not want to either force workers out, and many wanted to continue to work. They asked workers how could they make things better for them.  Workers complained of sore feet from standing, so they made special shoes for them, and put in wooden floors instead of concrete, some got chairs, like a hairdresser. They adjusted work schedules to allow for stretching and relaxing; Tools and computer screens were changed to adapt to age. The entire project only cost BMW $50,000, and productivity and job satisfaction went up.

A study of top companies in Canada, as reported in the Globe and Mail, illustrated strategies they used to retain older employees, including: Additional vacation time up to 6 weeks; free training and tuition programs; phased in retirement; physical fitness and wellness centers on site; and academic scholarships for children and grandchildren.

Aging people who hold negative beliefs about aging-such as mental and physical health deteriorating significantly, --end up performing worse on short-term memory and others kinds of tests, than those who have more positive beliefs.

We need a new kind of clock: an Ulyssean model in which the later years are viewed as a time of wisdom, creativity, power and purpose. We need to make a distinction among  job, career and life calling. For people who are aging, calling is far more important.

We need to be more concerned with wisdom, and less concerned with cognition. Look at the state of the world now, and what cognition has brought us without wisdom. Wisdom, a strength of aging people, encompasses discretion, maturity, keenness of intellect, broad experience, profound thought, compassion and understanding and implies a moral nature.  Wisdom is what and who you are, and not what you do.

It's time that employers and executives woke up the fact that we will need aging workers to sustain the economy and the time is now.

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

more...

Subscribe to Wired for Success

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?