Client Resource Center

Put 'Em Out to Pasture?

Let's be honest. If you have older workers on your payroll, can they really be as productive and valuable as your young whippersnappers?

My 70-year-old mother recently got a Facebook account. "I need it!" she said. "All my friends have them. I'm missing out!" She begged me to help. I had to show her how to sign up, create a profile, post photos, and update her status. Let me tell you, it was a process.

Next thing I know, she's posting on my friends' walls. Repeatedly. In all caps. "HI THERE!" "HOW'S THE WEATHER?" "REMEMBER HOW YOU AND JIMMY USED TO EAT OUT OF ROVER'S BOWL?"

Good thing I knew her password. Delete, delete, delete. I would have been super-embarrassed if I hadn't seen it all before, with my friends' parents. FWO: Facebooking While Old.

That's funny, until you realize half your staff is in the same age category. Look around the office: Ergonomic keyboards. People leaving early for water aerobics class. AARP Magazine and Metamucil in the break room. Next thing you know, you'll find a set of dentures in a glass in the men's room.

You've got to wonder: with all of these oldsters on staff, are we actually getting anything done around here? Young people are digital natives. They pick up new apps and software quickly. They're hungry, fit, eager to move up, and they work long hours. What are all these old folks doing here anyway? Shouldn't they be retired by now?

The answer is no. First of all, you can't get rid of them -- at least, not because of their age. That would be illegal. Second, they need to keep working ... and you need them to keep working, too.

The population is aging, as is the workforce. Studies show that the 65+ cohort will increase 75 percent by the year 2050. Those between 25 and 54, by contrast, will increase only 2 percent.

Life expectancy is increasing (an added eight years in the last half century) so people need to work longer to cover the costs of extended retirement. At the same time, the age of Social Security eligibility has been increasing. And the over-60 crowd is healthier and more active than ever. That means that the good old days of retirement at 65 is a thing of the past. Indeed, according to an AARP survey, 80 percent of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, intend to work past the age of 65.

But as the supply of younger workers shrinks relative to increasing employer needs and job creation, the glut of older workers could be a boon to those who are smart enough to make use of their unique skills and talents. Older workers may walk a bit slower and require more technological training, but they offer experience, maturity, stability and loyalty. You may be surprised to learn that research has even shown mature workers to be more adaptable and productive than younger ones.

So what can you do to employ more mature workers, to make the most of their talents and abilities, and to integrate them successfully with your millennial talent?

Create flexible work schedules and retirement options. While the proportion of those over 60 who are working full time is increasing, many mature workers are still interested in part-time work. Some have aging parents to care for; others are seeking to transition into retirement gradually.

Support training. Participation in workplace training is lower among older workers, in part because of lack of support from management. Realize that while these workers may be nearing retirement, their millennial counterparts are just as likely to take their employer-provided training elsewhere. Research has shown older workers to be adaptive learners; encourage them to learn new skills that will maximize their usefulness in your workplace.

Be strategic about health costs. Research shows that risk behaviors have a greater impact on health costs than increased age. Employers can reduce these behaviors by creating a healthy work environment that will minimize risk of injuries, as well as supporting healthy eating, smoking cessation and exercise programs. Other modifications that may reduce health costs and/or lost time due to illness or injury include better illumination, structured rest breaks and avoidance of static, repetitive tasks.

Accommodate their physical needs. In 2007, BMW initiated a pilot program to make their assembly-line work more accommodating to the needs of older workers. For a modest cost, they replaced cement floors with knee-friendly wooden platforms, installed "barbershop" chairs that allowed workers to sit, offered Orthopedic footwear and added height-adjustable work tables. The result was a 7 percent increase in productivity and a 5 percent decrease in absenteeism. The company has since replicated the changes in other plants.

Counter stereotypes. Negative perceptions of older workers can be found in employers, younger workers, and the mature employees themselves. Frame conversations in ways that value the unique "soft" skills of older employees, such as experience and emotional intelligence. Encourage collaboration and teamwork so older and younger workers do not see themselves as competitors. And remember that performance has a psychological component. Older workers scored better on a reading comprehension test when they were told it was measuring "thoughts and opinions" than when they were told it tested "memory." Adopt terminology that does not underscore the perceived handicaps of aging.

Finally, remember: you too will one day be a "mature" worker! Think about the workplace you would like. If you build it, they will come.