After a major computer company sold a division to an international rival, the buyout left Susan wondering about her future. Susan found herself on the outside of the corporate world looking in. No longer the young college graduate on the fast track with the company she had worked for since graduating with honors in engineering, Susan watched as the restructuring left her without her high-paying job. Now at age 49, Susan was concerned, and she questioned whether her age had anything to do with her being let go. “They hired my body double from the same university and another kid,” she says. “Two new hires who would work for basically the same pay had replaced me for less per year. Yes, I have the experience, but I understand business decisions.”
The Center for Retirement Research recently studied older workers and employer attitudes toward them. The study illuminates many key points, including the fact that attitudes are changing toward older workers. In the past, some evidence and many personal experiences and stories suggested that employers tend to shy away from older workers. Evidence in the courts indicates that discrimination does still exist, an unfortunate reality of a competitive marketplace. Privately, human resources professionals and other hiring decision makers point to not wanting to hire individuals with ingrained bad habits, the potential for higher health care costs and the “I’ll do it my way” attitudes that some older workers have demonstrated at their companies.
Statistics from a number of companies demonstrate that workers over 50 sometimes have a harder time finding work. The reality is that today’s 50-year-old is not the same as the 50-year-old of yesteryear. The argument can and should be made that older workers today are much different than older workers of the past. For example, Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research suggests that today’s workers are better educated than even those of 10 years ago. They are more physically fit. Physical demands of jobs are lessening as most manufacturing goes overseas. Labor-intensive positions have been and will continue to be lessened by machines and technology advances.
In a recent survey, 400 private-sector employers were asked to evaluate the relative productivity and cost of white-collar and rank-and-file workers age 55 and older, and whether, on balance, older employees were more or less attractive.
Employers worry that their older employees will have a hard time learning new tasks quickly, that their physical health and stamina will be a problem, and there is a significant concern about how much longer the older worker will stay on the job.
It is the cost of the older worker that is most concerning to many employers, not that the older worker is of lesser value. Over 40 percent of employers view older workers as more costly. The bottom line remains: Most employers see older workers as both more productive and more costly.
In most cases the cost and benefits seem to balance out. However, white-collar workers have much better prospects for working later in life than rank-and-file workers.
Flexible work schedules
Older workers might, for instance, have to accept lower pay or part-time work to stay employed. Many employers are hiring older workers on a part-time, temporary or project-assignment basis and not necessarily full-time. This means that not only do they get employees who need less training and are generally more reliable than their younger counterparts, but employers rarely have to pay benefits, unless they are hired 30 hours a week or there is a union issue, and they often pay an hourly rate or a project-basis rate that is far less than what these workers were earning when they worked full-time.
Another new survey suggests that employees are hoping for more interesting work in retirement. A few employers are beginning to get the picture.
There seem to be no easy answers, but it is important that as we develop the future leaders of our work force, we embrace this incredible knowledge transfer opportunity.
Sherri Elliott-Yeary is the CEO of human resources consulting companies Optimance Workforce Strategies and Gen InsYght, as well as the author of “Ties to Tattoos: Turning Generational Differences into a Competitive Advantage.” She has more than 15 years of experience as a trusted adviser and human resources consultant to companies ranging from small start-ups to large international corporations. Contact her at email@example.com.