By now, most of us are familiar with the plight of unemployed older workers in today’s unforgiving economy. But allow me to introduce you to a less well-covered phenomenon: the plight of businesses that don’t hire older workers.
The recent Boston Globe article “Long-term joblessness hits older workers hard” did an excellent job portraying the struggles older Americans face when trying to find work past the age of 50. As one out-of-work 60-year-old profiled in the article states, interviewers 20 years younger than he was did not seem eager to “hire their dad.” What the article did not touch on is that those interviewers are putting their employers at a comparative disadvantage by overlooking the skills, experience and added value older workers offer.
First, let us dispel the myth that senior citizens are just too old for the workplace. We all know that workers, for the most part, don’t retire at 60 anymore. But that’s not just because they can’t afford to—it’s because 60 isn’t old anymore. Today’s 50-, 60-and 70-somethings not only need to work, they want to work, and they are fully capable of doing so. In fact, the average health of today’s older worker is no worse than that of their younger counterparts, and by some measures is better. A 2012 AARP survey asked Americans aged 35 to 80 to rate their overall health and happiness, and found responses generally increasing with age. Other surveys have found adults over 65 reporting lower levels of depression, loneliness, and other mental health problems than their younger peers. The perception that people over the age of 60 are somehow mentally or physically unsuited for the workplace is as outdated as a fax machine.
But it’s not just that older workers aren’t risks or burdens to organizations. They are, in fact, a benefit. Numerous studies have shown that older workers are the most satisfied with their jobs and the most engaged of all age groups, which any manager can tell you leads to higher levels of presenteeism and productivity. They very often bring relevant experiences, strong attention-to-detail, and resilience built from years on the job that their younger peers may be less likely to offer.
Some of you might be thinking ‘great, a 60-year-old may have something to offer my company, but they’ll only be there for five or ten years, so why put in the investment?’ But that line of thinking ignores the dynamics of the modern workplace, After all, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure for 25- to 34-year-olds at their current employer is just 3.2 years. Hiring a 60-year-old could very well offer the company a longer tenure than hiring a 30-year-old.
Yet, the perception remains that older workers are not up to the job or not worth hiring. Nearly a quarter of all cases brought to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2011 claimed discrimination on the basis of age. Older workers are routinely passed up for promotions, forced out of jobs, or simply not given the chance in the first place. These kinds of ageist attitudes don’t just hurt older workers; they hurt the entire organization. A recent survey conducted by the Boston College Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that a perception of bias in the workplace against older workers generates lower senses of engagement among both older workers and younger workers. That’s right, even the perception that older workers are being discriminated against has a negative outcome for the company, across the board.
It’s high time for employers and employees alike to rethink our perceptions of older Americans in the workplace. Older workers are more than up to the job, they often bring unique skills and outlooks no one else can offer, and discriminating against these workers not only hurts them, it hurts the entire company.
Hiring managers who look at the resume of a 50+ worker and see a risk or a burden should look again. Older workers don’t need your pity. Firms that pass on the opportunity to hire them do.
Jacquelyn James, PhD is research director at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work and co-author of The Crown of Life: Dynamics of the Early Postretirement Period (with Paul Wink)
Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Director of Research
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College