Economically It Is Evident – Companies Need to Hire Older Workers
According to the Harvard Business Review, US job vacancies have outnumbered job applicants since 2018. One reason being is that boomers are joining the ranks of retired at a faster rate than millennials can step into their place. As DEI initiatives are being seriously looked at within the workplace, there is still one glaring bias omission – ageism. People are still being evaluated on their chronological age. Several years ago, researchers, Bersin and Chamorro-Premuzic asked around 10,000 companies this question, “Is age a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage in your organization?”. No surprise – over two-thirds of the companies considered older age a competitive disadvantage. This was consistent with data from AARP research that shows two-thirds of individuals aged 45-74 experienced age-related discrimination.
There are two demographic trends. Average longevity of a human life goes up three months every year. In the U.S., life expectancy was 47 years at the beginning of the 20th century. It is now 79 years, and by the end of the century, it should reach 100.
Secondly, young people are having fewer children, and fertility rates are declining throughout the industrialized world. The birth rate is far below the replacement rate. This means that the only way world economies can grow is through improvements in productivity (which is not happening) or immigration (a searing political issue). (Bersin & Chamorro-Premuzic, Harvard Business Review, 09/26/2019).
What is the solution?
Companies must bring older people back to work and give them meaningful, important jobs. For years retirement was presented as nirvana – leisure time, golf, travel, and relaxing around the pool. But the reality is those who stop working and retire often suffer from depression, heart attacks and general malaise because they no longer have the purpose that their careers offered them.
What are the benefits companies gain from older workers?
There are many myths that older workers can drag down a company in these highly technical times. But that is a myopic viewpoint. Older workers hold institutional knowledge accumulated over the many years they were employed. This experience offers shortcuts to solving problems, confidence in decisions, and viewpoints seated in wisdom (crystallized intelligence). They are reliable employees exhibiting professionalism and maturity resulting in a strong work ethic. Getting the job done right is a common asset with this group.
What accommodations are necessary for an older worker?
Aging changes in body and brain are real and these changes make employers leery of bringing on an older person. They are afraid of the costs involved with healthcare, missed work, inability to maintain a work schedule, and lack of current technical skills. Can an older employee keep up the pace of a younger workplace?
It has been a belief that older employees are not adept at learning new skills, but researchers have learned that more advanced levels of cognitive processing improve through aging. This makes onboarding a new hire or training new skills to older employees more reasonable for human resource departments.
There are changes in training and learning expectations. An older brain doesn’t process information as quickly as a younger brain. Pacing the new information in blocks of microlearning followed by experiential learning allows this new information to be learned and encoded in a timelier manner.
There are visual changes that occur as you age. The need for reading glasses happens to practically everyone and that change usually starts to occur in the forties. Content printed on glossy paper is often difficult to see. Low contrast colors like blues and greens printed on black background is very difficult to read. Red on black or dark blue is another difficult combination. Training manuals should be printed in large print – at least 12 point and in high contrast colors.
Hearing loss is more prevalent than anyone would admit. If a person can’t understand what a trainer or manager is saying, they won’t be able to create the memory to do the job.
Aging brain changes
Speed of processing is the amount of time it takes for a person to hear something, and then give a response. An aging brain slows down. It cannot understand fast talking because it cannot process the information fast enough. This is not cognitive decline – it is brain aging and it happens to all of us.
Working memory is the brain system responsible for temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for language comprehension, learning, and reasoning, which are complex cognitive tasks. Working memory refers to handling information during a complex cognitive process (e.g., remembering numbers while reading a paragraph).
Short term memory
Short term memory is responsible for storing information for a short period of time (e.g., remembering a phone number).
Attention constitutes a selection mechanism that allows choosing information processing related to a specific task over irrelevant information. It underlies our awareness of the world and the regulation of our feelings and our thoughts. (The Role of Working Memory and Attention in Older Workers’ Learning, http://www.i-jac.org)
Age related changes in working memory and attention
To capitalize on the institutional knowledge of older workers and get them up to speed on new technology, it is imperative to understand that working memory capacity declines with increasing age. We lose our distraction filters as we get older, and it becomes more difficult to maintain attention. The limited working memory capacity is closely related to our ability to exclude distractors during encoding. Older adults, compared with younger adults, are in a greater reliance on focused attention while encoding a working memory task without distraction. (iJAC-Vol. 14, No. 1, 2021)
We all experience these brain aging changes. L&D must incorporate changes to accommodate the aging brain. Older workers are very capable of learning new technology, and updates in system processes if they learn in a way that their brain can process and retain the information. Age should not be a determining factor if they are capable of being a productive employee.
Put the terms ‘longevity’, and ‘age’ into your wellbeing, DEI, and recruiting strategies. Remember that many people – no matter their age – do not have enough money to retire (even if they wanted to). In the U.S., it costs $1 million to retire at age 65, yet 21% of Americans have no savings, and 10% have less than $5000 in savings. This said, people of every age are motivated to come to work.
If you can create an inclusive, fair, and meaningful experience for older employees, as well as younger ones, you will not only find your company becomes more innovative, engaging, and profitable over time, you will be benefitting society at large. (hbr.org/2019/09/the-case-for-hiring-older-workers)
Bersin,J. & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (September 26, 2019). The case for hiring older workers. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/09/the-case-for-hiring-older-workers
Employing Older Workers. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesand tools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/employingolderworkers.aspx
The Role of Working Memory and Attention in Older Workers’ Learning. iJAC-Vol. 14, No. 1, 2021. Retrieved from http://i-jac.org
Vantage Aging. (January 18, 2022). Hire older workers – 5 key benefits for your business. Retrieved from https://vantageaging.org/blog/benefits-of-older-workers/