Businesses must learn to leverage older workers

The percentage of the American workforce that is aged 55 and over is growing rapidly, and expected to exceed 25% by 2020.

This means to compete in the 21st century, businesses must learn how to leverage older workers.

People in their 50s, 60s and 70s are healthy and productive. They may have their youthful years behind them, but they are not ready to enter old age – they are “Adults 2.0” says Dr Sandra Timmermann of Fedcap:

“As long as people are productive they’re not really old, not in the way that people used to think of old age.”

Last week Timmerman, a nationally recognized gerontologist with a special interest in aging and its relation to business, addressed an audience of leaders from business and not-for-profit sectors attending Fedcap’s 6th Solutions Series forum in New York.

Fedcap, a 2,000-strong, non-profit rehabilitation agency in New York City, helps people of all ages and backgrounds to overcome barriers to employment.

Other corporate executives and experts in aging in the workplace also addressed the meeting, titled “Business in the 21st Century: Leveraging the Older Workforce as a Competitive Advantage.”

Businesses that don’t learn to leverage older workers will lose out

The presenters discussed challenges of responding to the huge demographic shift in workforces, as America’s Baby Boomers, healthy and robust, yet coming under increasing economic pressure, remain in employment.

In 2000, the percentage of the US labor force comprising workers aged 55 and over was 13.1%. This has risen rapidly, to 19.5% in 2010, and will continue to grow until 1 in 4 American workers in 2020 is 55 or older, says Fedcap.

Businesses that do not respond to this shift by working out and then implementing changes to policy and practice in order to meet the needs of older workers and make best use of their talents and skills, will find themselves losing out to competitors who do, was the key message of the presentations.

Yet, a recent survey by Ernst & Young found that 85% of responding organizations had no formal programs in place designed to retain older workers. (However, those who did, used a variety of approaches, with the most popular including hiring retirees as consultants or contractors, retention bonuses, promoting a culture of generational diversity, and pre-retirement planning programs).

Employers have barely begun to consider how an aging workforce will affect their bottom line, and even less so, how it will affect their own particular workforce.

Presenters at the forum discussed how, in order to make best use of an aging workforce, employers will need to review all aspects of employment policy and practice, including: compensation, retirement, tenure, communications, workplace design, work preferences and knowledge transfer.

One of the companies represented at the forum was Compass Group, a leading provider of service management and support services that employs over 220,000 people in the United States. Dick Cattani, CEO of their Premier Hospitality Division, says:

“While we have embraced a more flexible work schedule, seasonal work and job sharing, we have a long way to go to fully respond to the aging of our staff.”

BMW, CVS, and Goldman Sachs were also among companies which presented case studies of how they are addressing the challenge of leveraging older workers to maximize productivity.

Dr. Kathleen E. Christensen, Program Director, Working Longer Program, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, adds:

“The productivity of older workers is best harvested through mixed-age workforces. Small ergonomic changes can also enhance productivity.”

Christensen points to the importance of making workplaces more flexible:

“When properly implemented, they are strategic business tools that benefit both parties by reducing absenteeism and attrition, and increasing worker engagement and performance.”

She also says there is a need to address the “tremendous economic implications,” explaining, for example, that:

“There is no way that a 40-year career can support a 30-year retirement.”