They don’t have a choice. There are, however, some sober challenges which I discuss below.
The growing presence of older Americans in the workforce is a fact. Our economy is already relying increasingly on 50-plusers working–even if we don’t always feel the love from our employers.
- The percentage of people 65 and older in the labor force increased from 12.1 percent in 1990 to 16.1 percent in 2010. The increase was greater for women, according to new analysis of Census data.
- The Census also projects a 67% increase in the 65-and-older population between 2015 and 2040, when one in five Americans will be 65 or older,
- The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College says that by 2019, workers 55 and older will comprise 25 percent of the workforce.
- The Urban Institute predicts workers 50 years and older will account for 35 percent of the labor force by 2019.
Living longer means working longer
This is great news for the economy. Really.
Older workers with earnings boost payments into Social Security, and they spend on all kinds of things from meals out to clothing to vacations which keeps the economic engine purring.
From an employer’s perspective, older workers contribute experience and are often willing to work part-time. And you know what that means–employers are generally spared from shelling out for pesky benefits like medical insurance.
On the surface, employers get it. At least they’re giving lip service to the realization that something new is afoot. A joint poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and AARP shows that more than seven in 1o human resource professionals polled say the loss of talented older workers is “a problem” or “a potential problem” for their organizations.
They plan to hire retired employees as consultants or temporary workers, offer flexible work arrangements and design part-time positions to attract older workers.
But most aren’t doing anything–yet.
Corporate executives and policy makers would be wise to focus on how they can keep older workers productively on the job longer.
Here’s why. As the economy gains momentum, plenty of jobs will be created between now and 2030, and there will not be enough younger workers to fill the need as millions of boomers leave the workforce.
Unmapped demographic terrain.
This may sound ridiculous at a time when U.S. unemployment floats around 8%. Workplace experts, however, predict that there will be a future shortage of trained workers for key jobs in a broad swath of professions from education to engineering to healthcare and beyond. Older workers will need not only to stay on the job, but have core training to stay relevant.
Here are the challenges:
1. Who is going to pay for that training? Most labor market experts I have interviewed say the government and private employers need to ramp up more training programs for older workers and create workplaces that make it easier for them to do their jobs.
Employers don’t want to spend for it. They’ve already cut to the bone to stay competitive globally in recent years and this kind of spending is a tough sell.
Conceivably, as I discussed as a panel member at a recent Federal Reserve Workforce Development conference, one way to provide the needed training is through the community college system. The coursework could be offered at an affordable cost for the worker. Depending on who foots the bill, employers or employeees could receive tax incentives to ease the tuition bill.
2. What skills will we need? There’s a palpable need for employers to provide a roadmap, so we’re all pulling in the same direction. The key will be for employers to cast an eye to the future and identify what skills need to be ramped up so older workers can stay on the job productively.
The training disconnect already exists. I speak frequently to 50+ workers around the country about the need to keep their skills up-to-date and to constantly being adding to their toolkit to keep a toehold in the workplace.
Many are willing to add the training at their own cost, but have no idea what they should be concentrating on, where the demand will be, and how much they should invest in their future.3. How can we retrofit the workplace? An aging population is inevitable, but that doesn’t have to mean a drop off in productivity. Here’s a great example of what one employer has done.
Management at BMW’s plant in Dingolfing, Germany anticipated the average age of workers to increase from 39 years in 2007 to 47 years in 2017, I first learned about this effort in a Harvard Business Review report.
To get a grip on how to cope with an older worker, the automaker rejiggered an assembly line and staffed it with a mix of workers typical for 2017.
These were BMW small ergonomic design and equipment changes, such as new wooden floors, special orthopedic shoes, adding barbershop-type chairs so workers can work sitting down and the installation of magnifying lenses to help workers distinguish among small parts, reducing eyestrain and mistakes. In addition, a physiotherapist developed strength and stretching exercises for the workers to do on a daily basis while on the job.
The 70 changes which cost about $50,000 to implement increased productivity by 7 percent in one year, bringing the line on a par with lines in which workers were, on average, younger. The company is now testing and refining these kinds of changes in plants in the United States, Germany, and Austria. The goal is to incorporate it across BMW’s global manufacturing organization.
4. How can we change employer attitudes toward older workers? Older job seekers may want to work and need to work, but it’s tough sledding when it comes to landing new positions. I’ve studied this phenomenon extensively, interviewed and consulted with hundreds of workers 50 + who are struggling to land a job.
The pump the brakes approach to employing or reemploying older persons is rarely discussed, but ever present beneath the surface. It’s not politically correct to actually verbalize that form of discrimination. But it lingers.
Right now, many employers don’t feel the need to woo older workers and are unlikely to adapt until they do. But as the labor market constricts, as I see it, older workers will have more say in choosing the kind of jobs they do, when, and how they work.
So to older workers, I relay this quote posted by my friend and career expert Miriam Cohen Salpeter on Facebook and Pinterest:
“It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.”
Don’t think you are too old for the job. You’re in the driver’s seat. Just wait for the light to change.
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Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available here www.kerryhannon.com. Check out my column at AARP. My weekly column at PBS’s NextAvenue.org is here.