Business Advice

Business Advice / Prejudice Leads Us Nowhere

Prejudice Leads Us Nowhere

September 13, 2021

Portrait of Felica Smith, retired attorney and HR professional

Felica Smith

Prejudice Leads Us Nowhere

By Felica Smith

Ageism, or age discrimination especially against seniors, is a serious a problem! Why is this happening? As a 67-year-old who would love to find challenging and stimulating work, I have given this a lot of thought.

I’ve concluded that employers often view:

  • Older workers as overpaid and think that they can save money by replacing them with younger, and especially more technologically savvy ones.
  • Older workers as less capable, less adaptive and less willing to roll up their sleeves to try to do, or learn, new things.
  • Older workers may not be able to perform well due to failing strength and health issues.
  • Older workers may find it difficult to work under a younger boss or relate well to younger team members.
  • Older workers may be overqualified and therefore would not be satisfied with the job responsibilities at hand and would have higher salary expectations.
  • Older workers might just be looking for a cozy job in which to coast, for the last years before retiring, and would not be interested in taking on challenging tasks.

Many others have studied this as well and found these perceptions to be false. So why is this situation so prevalent? In my opinion, these false stereotypes often seem to be perpetuated by the media and by the travel and retirement investment industries. For example, youthfulness is always promoted, and commercials, aimed at older folks, focus on memory boosting pills, arthritis cures, hemorrhoid medicines and endless varieties of remedies to cover grey and eliminate sagging skin and wrinkles. Financial advisors participate in ageism by trying to convince people that achieving retirement will be Nirvana and that we should all aspire to be comfortable enough financially to live well in our golden years. However, they often define living well as leisurely cruising to our heart’s content, as often as possible, going golfing routinely or joyfully continuously babysitting our grandchildren at the drop of a hat. With these never-ending stereotypes, we don’t stand a chance!

Frankly, continuing ageism is counterproductive and destructive to the individuals affected and to society at large. The workforce in the US, and in many other developed nations, is aging rapidly. The Harvard Business Review, in studying these demographics, estimates that 25% of workers in the US and the UK will be over 55 by 2025. In the last decade, there have been significant shortages of workers (across many industries) and the situation has been made even worse because of this never-ending pandemic. Baby boomers have been leaving the workforce at a rate faster than millennials have been able to replace them. This demographic trend will only increase exponentially and is catching up with us each day!

Also, young people are having fewer children while fertility rates continue to drop dramatically throughout the industrial world. The result of all these factors is a serious lack of world-wide economic growth. To help remedy this, we can try to significantly increase productivity per worker or bring in a steady flow of new immigrants, which given the current political climate would be exceedingly difficult to achieve.

 

If these potential solutions are not realistic, then what else needs to be done? The fastest and most effective way to address these challenges would be for companies to hire, or bring older workers back to work, and provide them with meaningful and productive jobs. To achieve this and attract and retain them, employers should:

  • Actively source and recruit older applicants.
  • Offer avenues for flexible work arrangements (workers of all ages want this more than ever after living through the pandemic!).
  • Look at pay equity by job level and not tenure.
  • Give older workers a diversity of jobs and create opportunities for mentorships.
  • Create teams comprised of different ages so they can all learn from each other and make the team’s results even stronger.
  • Provide updated technology, and other skills training, as part of a continuous learning culture for everyone.
  • Make your older employees feel as valued and appreciated as all other staff members.

Many leading studies have shown that mental horsepower declines after age 30 but knowledge, expertise and work ethic (the main predictors of job performance) keep increasing throughout a person’s life. Additionally, drive, grit and curiosity often continue to develop as people mature.

It is detrimental to ignore or marginalize older workers.  People such as Warren Buffett, Jane Fonda, The Dalai Lama, George Lucas, Richard Branson, The Pope, Pele, Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg and so many others, clearly show that exceptionalism doesn’t stop after a certain age.

Overall, companies that embrace older workers have found that they have a stronger and more stable workforce because older workers are less likely to job hop, take less time off, have more skills, experience, and a strong work ethic. Also, older workers can train the next generation of workers and be able to maintain the company’s history.

In order to grow even stronger, in the climate of talent shortages, businesses need to overcome these destructive myths and actively include seasoned talent as part of their staffing strategy. The result will be companies that become more stable, resilient, and profitable over time benefitting the organization, its employees, shareholders, and the society at large.