In the News
19 June 2017—Center's research testimony for the EEOC.
Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Acting Chair Lipnic, Commissioners Feldblum, Yang, and Burrows, Deputy General Counsel and Legal Counsel, thank you for the invitation to speak with you about the challenges facing older workers in today’s context of longevity and extended working lives.
Experts anticipate that in most countries with established market economies, the older worker population will continue to grow over the next several decades while the size of the younger workforce will shrink. The number of people 65 years and older who remain in the U.S. workforce is growing as the average age of retirement has risen in the last two decades (United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics [U.S. BLS], 2016). According to a 2014 AARP survey, a clear majority of workers over the age of 50 plan to work past the age of 65, including a sizable 18% who indicate that they never intend to retire (Skufca, 2014). An important factor in this trend may be the recent evidence that fewer and fewer people are “very confident” that they have enough money for a comfortable retirement—only 18% of respondents in a recent survey (Greenwald, Greenwald, & Associates, Copeland, & VanDerhei (2017).
This major demographic change has increased the relevance of a range of issues related to the aging of the workforce, such as the need for new employment practices that address the needs and priorities of today’s multi-generational workforce. Scholars have begun to take a fresh look at fundamental assumptions about contemporary experiences of aging and have started to re-examine older workers’ preferences with regard to work. Unfortunately, however, employers have been slow to innovate. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits employers from making specific types of discriminatory decisions, there is evidence that age bias and negative age stereotypes about older workers continue to affect older workers’ employment experiences (Boerlijst, 1994; Borgatta 1991; Diekman & Hirnisey, 2007; Maurer, Barbeite, Weiss, & Lippotreu, 2008; McCann & Giles, 2002; Munk, 1999; Newmark, Burn & Button, 2017; Roscigno, 2007).
Stereotypes and Ageism
Stereotypes are “beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of members of certain groups” (Hilton & von Hippel 1996, p.240). These are often deemed as normal cognitive processes enabling people to categorize information and to reduce complex input (Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, & Sharit, 2009; Hamilton & Trolier, 1986; Taylor, 1981). In his classic study on prejudice, Allport (1954) explains this view:
“The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends on it.” (p. 20)
Age Bias at the Workplace
As noted, there are indications that age-based stereotypes follow people into the workplace. Ageism might affect employment experiences at virtually any stage of the employee-employer relationship. Several studies have found evidence of biases against older adults during recruitment and hiring (Bal, Reiss, Rudolf, & Baltes, 2011; Diekman & Hirnisey, 2007; Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007; Lahey, 2008). Biases can be explicit or implicit, real or imagined, but, as noted above, our impulse to create social categories is practically unavoidable. Thus, it is unlikely that we can eliminate them entirely, no matter how well-intentioned we might be.
Rather, it seems more prudent to develop strategies for preventing biases from entering into employment hiring, recruitment and HRM practices. Since its founding in 2005, the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College has created a “crazy quilt of policies having to do with job qualities that benefit workers of all ages. Most recently, we have worked with AARP to develop a benchmarking tool for managing the current multigenerational workforce. Tip sheets are provided on the basis of whether an organization appears to be strong or weak (or in the middle) of any given set of practices. The tool can be found at the following link: http://virgo.bc.edu/employerbenchmarking/
Tip sheets feature several of the sets of practices noted in the “crazy quilt” as well as: Assessment, Recruitment, and Hiring, Options for Continued Work or Retirement, Flexible Work Options, and Managing Intergenerational Relationships. These tip sheets start with bullet points for the enticing glance, but also provide multiple resources and links to broader, deeper discussions of the issues. What follows are a few strategies for avoiding age bias in managing today’s multigenerational workforce from these tip sheets (McNamara and AARP, November, 2016).
How to Lessen Age Discrimination
Assessment Strategies. Employers can and should develop assessment practices to help them avoid age discrimination. They should, for example:
- Look 6 to 10 years in the future for assessment purposes rather than the typical 1 to 5 years.
- Assess larger scale trends such as in the industry and region to identify risks; and make the aging workforce an explicit part of the organizational knowledge audit.
- Map age demographics in critical positions.
- Assess the usefulness of internal transfers.
- Take action even while continuing to gather data.
Recruitment Strategies. Changes to recruitment practices might be an important step in avoiding age bias when hiring. To do so, employers should:
- Assess the extent to which hiring workers of diverse ages can support organizational goals and build on their employee referral program.
- Consult various sources of myths and misconceptions about older workers (e.g., The National Council on Aging’s Myths and Facts about Older Workers).
- Review recruitment strategies to make sure that they are targeting workers of all ages.
- Develop an age-friendly website that includes images of employees at all ages; feature any awards such as the Age Smart Employer Awards.
Interviewing Strategies. The interviewing process can also be modified to avoid age bias. Studies show that interviewers tend to favor job candidates who remind them of themselves (Rivera, 2012). Thus, employers can:
- Develop an age-diverse interview panel for prospective employees. Diverse interview panels are less vulnerable to unconscious often unintentional age bias (see, for example, James, McKechnie & Swanberg, 2013).
- Know the guidelines (the do’s and don’ts of interviewing strategies) to avoid lawsuits of all types including age bias.
- Provide a standard process for hiring managers or teams as to appropriate questions to ask as well as information they should or should not gather to avoid age bias.
Options for Continued Work or Retirement. Providing options for continued work in later life can decrease unexpected turnover costs and loss of institutional knowledge by providing flexible ways for employees to stay in the workforce, maintain a sense of purpose, and build their financial security. Employers therefore might:
- Provide employees with information and resources about continued work, e.g., flexible work options, phased retirement, reduced responsibilities, part-time options; and creating a program to reengage retired employees who want some level of continued involvement with the organization.
- Provide career counseling or coaching to workers of all ages, both financial and nonfinancial retirement coaching to promote an orderly and successful transition for employees and the business.
- Make knowledge management a priority in career counseling.
- Use individualized development plans to help workers who want to retire make a smooth transition into that next stage of life.
Strategies for Retaining Employees of All Ages. As noted above, today’s older worker may want to continue working past conventional retirement ages for both personal and financial reasons. Yet, twin myths that older workers are pining for retirement and that younger workers are more likely to stay with the organization persist. Workers of all ages, however, may value certain conditions of employment that makes continued work more realistic. Thus, employers can develop strategies for retaining employees of all ages. Create desirable working conditions by:
Giving workers of all ages flexible work options or more control over where, when and how much they work.
- Determining the extent to which flexible work options solve problems rather than create problems and determine which flexible work options are best for a given business.
- Conducting regular assessments of the strengths and weakness of organizational policies—which ones are employees using? Do employees feel a stigma attached to their use? Are they implemented consistently and fairly? These are important questions in deciding the extent to which flexible work options support business outcomes.
- Provide training and development opportunities for workers of all ages
Avoiding Intergenerational Conflict. Bringing together the similarities among different generations in a workforce, while acknowledging their differences, can have benefits for a multigenerational workforce.
- Confront the myths and realities of generational conflict and encourage a diverse workforce.
- Expand policies designed for younger workers to affect a larger age range.
- Provide cross-generational networking opportunities.
- Provide leadership training to all generations of employees.
- Minimize communication difficulties that could lead to misunderstandings, for example communication over email.
- Pair employees of different generations in mentoring relationships.
- Train managers and supervisors in understanding differences among generations as well as building on characteristics that benefit all generations such as credibility and trustworthiness.
- Build intergenerational teams.
In sum, employer efforts to change practices instead of efforts to eliminate cognitive bias alone are time-honored strategies for confronting “isms” of all types.
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