Many good reasons exist to promote age-responsive workplace policies, but different logics underpin the arguments advanced.
First, consider the logic of economic productivity. This rationale for age-responsive workplaces focuses on the risks of losing talented staff and makes the most of a multigenerational workforce. For example, an all-in or all-out retirement policy can lead some workers to exit their jobs sooner than their employers might desire, and hamper knowledge transfer between generations. Because such a policy can cause recruitment costs to escalate, productivity to fall, and profit to suffer, the option of bridge jobs looks like a better bet by comparison.
Second, the logic of social justice can be applied. This rationale focuses on the issue of inequity and how age or life-stage discriminatory practices create disadvantage. Applying this logic focuses on unfairness in the blunt use of age and parental status as markers of employability. Social injustice can result in the disillusionment and debasement of those who have been treated unfairly. It can also create entitlement for those advantaged by the status quo. The logic of social justice presents equity in workplace policies as an uphill battle of the weak against the strong, and its effectiveness is enhanced by social organization.
Third is the logic of collective interests. This rationale considers the health of society as a whole as the primary concern. Plato discussed this rationale in his treatise The Republic, showing that some types of unfairness or inequity can actually serve to create a more powerful society. For example, in the realm of retirement policy there may be very good reasons to encourage an older generation to exit the workforce in order to make room for the entry of a younger generation. Similarly, collective interests might also be served by policies that promote shorter work weeks and more vacation time as ways to reallocate work and reduce unemployment.
Weighing the arguments
If one is seeking to catalyze discretionary change within organizations, economic productivity is the logic that will have the greatest force. Can age responsiveness improve brand reputation? Will it facilitate recruitment and retention of the best workers? Will it enhance a company’s capacity to serve an age-diverse client or customer base? These are all relevant questions, which in turn beg for some type of cost-benefit analysis. The reality is that sometimes it makes economic sense for employers not to be age-responsive, and when that’s the case, those who fight for reform must fall back on the logics of social justice and collective interests.
The civil rights and gay rights movements reveal the remarkable sway that social justice arguments can have on workplace policy. How the Baby Boom generation will change the terms of employment for older workers is an open question. If its impact on the anti-Vietnam War movement, the sexual revolution, and popular culture are indicators, the effect is likely to be substantial but even so, it is not inevitable. Social justice may align with demands for nondiscretionary labor protections, but political will and political organization are necessary to back those demands up.
Owing to the individualistic orientation of American culture, the logic of collective interests might be more difficult to mobilize into action. However, remember that a shared spirit was a foundation of the commitment to World War II and underpinned many of the policies for returning soldiers (such as the GI Bill). The application of the logic of collective interests to age-responsive workplace policies requires considering not only what is best for older workers but also what is best for workers at all stages of life, as well as for those who are outside of the workforce. Ultimately, this question asks us to think about why age-responsive workplaces are important not only for securing the interests of older workers and their employers but also for the interests of a remarkably diverse society.
Stephen Sweet, Associate Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College, author of The Work-Family Interface (2014 Sage), and Research Fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Stephen Sweet, PhD
Associate Professor of Sociology
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
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