... And Taking Their Experience and Wisdom with Them!
By: Jeff Nazzaro
Demographics in the United States have long pointed to a future national workforce with a severe age imbalance. In fact, as early as next year, it is expected that people over the age of 60 will, for the first time in the US, outnumber those under 5 years old. And, by 2025, it has been estimated that a full quarter of American workers will be 55 or over.
“…more than 20 million people left their jobs in 2021…”
This is due in part to the post-war Baby Boomers reaching and surpassing retirement age, but also to a steady increase in life expectancy (a trend that has reversed itself in the past few years due to COVID-19 and, perhaps, growing economic inequality in the US), in conjunction with a falling birthrate. What is perhaps surprising is that since 2018—yes, prior to the pandemic hitting—job openings have outstripped the number of applicants. Baby Boomers have been steadily retiring at rates faster than previously anticipated, and before replacement-level numbers of Millennials can step in and fill the vacancies.
The more than 20 million people who left their jobs in 2021 (with a record 4.5 million in November alone) as part of the so-called Great Resignation, leaving half as many more new openings unfilled, only exacerbated what was already a problem. But the big question that remains is how to handle the eventual imbalance when more and more of the workforce comprises younger, less experienced workers, functioning alongside a dwindling set of older people. The short answer, at least according to a recent Harvard Business Review report, may seem counterintuitive: start hiring more older workers.
“…board of directors’ executive watercoolers are seldom mistaken for fountains of youth.”
A massive study conducted for Deloitte revealed that close to 70 percent of corporations believe that the older a worker and, by extension, the higher a firm’s average employee age, the more of a disadvantage competitively they will be at in the marketplace. Youth trumps experience, in other words--at least in the perception of boards of directors. This is somewhat ironic in that boards of directors’ executive watercoolers are seldom mistaken for fountains of youth.
Still, the idea persists that, generally speaking, older workers will not be as able to perform in their jobs at as high a level, be as willing to adapt to new challenges, or be as willing to take on new responsibilities as their younger colleagues. Add to that the firmly entrenched notion of 65 as not only the mandatory retirement age but also the desired one—the idea that people should, and therefore must, want to stop working at the specified age.
But as young people are told to do what they love and they’ll never work a day in their lives, many older workers are living it. Obvious examples abound of artists, journalists, politicians, judges, academicians, and the like at varying levels of fame and accomplishment working well into advanced age and often never retiring. But who’s to say the lower profile engineers, bookkeepers, paralegals, and others of the world aren’t similarly fulfilled in their jobs and would prefer continuing to work over a full-time life of rest, relaxation, shopping, and entertainment?
Meanwhile, despite prevailing notions that many Millennials are simply uninterested in working “real” jobs, most have strong ideas about the pay, benefits, and conditions under which they expect to work, and are not afraid to ask for and hold out for them. They are not necessarily against traditional, full-time, on-site jobs; they just have seen the ill effects workplace toxicity and other negative attributes have exacted on the mental health of theirs and past generations, and they are trying to shape a work experience that best suits their overall needs.
“…Millennials are trying to shape a work experience that best suits their overall needs.”
By retaining their existing experienced workers and hiring new older workers, employers can help ease their companies through this transitional period. Rather than see them as liabilities to deal with, firms should actively recruit older workers for leadership and mentorship roles, as well as to plug them into positions where they will be working for managers much younger than themselves. At the same time, older workers should not be seen as an automatically greater liability in salary and benefits; compensation should be based on workplace responsibilities, skills, and experience rather than age and tenure, experts say.
While it’s true that cognitively speaking we humans max out our raw potential at or around the still-green age of 30, as we push farther and farther past that benchmark, our experience and accumulated knowledge pay ever-increasing mental dividends. An age-balanced work unit gives companies the best of both worlds: the lightning bolts of youth meeting the smoldering wisdom of age.
“…firms should actively recruit older workers for leadership and mentorship roles, as well as to plug them into positions where they will be working for managers much younger than themselves.”
In addition, older, experienced workers can serve as mentors to newly hired Millennials, while younger but experienced workers can reverse mentor newer, older hires. Age diversity throughout a company is a surefire way to boost cognitive diversity which, in turn, should lead to increased innovation and output. The result will be a win-win situation across the generations that will allow companies to grow during this demographic transition, with a more gradual transition through Baby Boomers and Gen Xers at the top of the age chart to the Millennials and Gen Zers taking the reins.