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Sloan Center News

US Among Highest Rates of Older Workers Globally

25 January 2010—There is a saying among sociologists that “perception is reality” which reflects the fact that our subjective experiences shape our daily lives, as well as the expectations we have for our lives, tomorrow.

Of course, the perceptions and expectations we have for ourselves do not always match the perceptions that others have of us, which can create curious disconnects. Those of us over 50 have all had experiences like this:

A colleague of mine (who resembles the lead actors in the new TV series, Men of a Certain Age) used to play basketball during breaks at work with colleagues who were his age peers. One day, his friends were unavailable to play so he joined a game with some college students at the gym. He ran, shot, blocked, rebounded, held his own. He really felt alive and on par with the students. After the game one student turned and said to him, “Thanks for playing with us, Sir.” No doubt about it – they saw him as an older adult.

This incident was taken from a seemingly innocuous slice of life, but how many older adults experience a similar kind of age disconnect at work? How many have had to “manage” the gap between how they see their own vitality and potential for continued contributions and what they see as the perceptions that others have for them?

On the flip side, perceptions and expectations of age also affect younger workers. Even when they bring visible competencies to the table, they may be seen as too young or having too little tenure to accept specific responsibilities.

The new age demographics of today’s workforce will continue to be challenging until we are able to set aside negative expectations that reflect stereotypes rather than abilities. Across the country, younger people and older people are trailblazing new territory with regard to age-related norms and expectations. For example, it may soon become the new normal to be “working in retirement.”

There are a number of factors that will push the boundaries of today’s expectations that are linked to age. It is almost inevitable that increased longevity will affect how we start to think about key life events that could happen at 20, 30, 40, and 50…

My mother, who is living in a retirement community, is 89. I recently had a conversation with her about her upcoming 90th birthday. She cut me off abruptly, and started to chastise me for even thinking about a party. Not because she didn’t appreciate the thought, but because it would be “socially inappropriate” to have a party when someone turns 90. As she said, it is becoming pretty commonplace to have parties when people turn 100, so 90 would give the impression that she was too self-involved.

A representative of one of the retail firms who works closely with the Center recently said that they have noticed an increase in the number of 90-year olds in their workforce…and they would not be surprised if some of their employees don’t pass 100 years in the coming decade.

It is time for us all to identify and then jettison age-related stereotypes that may reflect yesterday’s workplace realities but that limit the contributions that employees (both young and old) can make to the work that needs to get done today.