The Distressing Story of Age In The Workforce
Over the last decade we have been obsessed by the role of Millennials at work. They’re more demanding. They want more development. They keep changing jobs.
Promote me faster! Give me a raise! I expect free lunch! Unlimited vacation!
Well, all this has been important, but we now see a much bigger demographic challenge ahead: the role of people over the age of 55.
And this trend will continue. We are living longer and having fewer children. The fertility rate in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, and almost every developed country is below replacement. And as a result, all these economies are going to age – for the next 30 years.
Age Is The New Black
What, you say? I thought the world was getting younger? Nope, it’s the opposite. In almost every developed country our wonderful science of health is letting us live longer. And as young people have fewer children (the fertility rate is well below replacement in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, and many other developed countries), every major economy is going to get older.
By 2050, the worldwide population of people aged 65 and above will have doubled from 8.5 to 16.7%. In fact by 2030 there will be more than a billion people over the age of 65.
Obviously this has an impact on public policy, immigration, and healthcare investments. But the more interesting impact for us is the huge impact this has on work.
Generational Discrimination Is Rampant
How do most employers feel about older people? They aren’t that thrilled to have them around. While the tenured workforce may be wiser and more reliable, they make more money and most employers worry they can’t keep up with today’s always-on digital workplace.
Here’s a startling fact. A few years ago we asked employers whether in their company “age was a competitive advantage of competitive disadvantage?” Guess what. Almost 60% of them told us “age is a competitive disadvantage.” In other words, when a young person competes with an older person for a job, the young person wins.
The ultimate ridiculous statement was made by Mark Zuckerberg in 2007, “Young People Are Just Smarter.”
I’ve seen this in my own personal life. Many of my friends from college (we’re all in our early 60s) are starting to think about retiring, primarily because they’ve been forced out of their companies. Does this make any sense? Of course not. Most of us will live well into our 80s, 90s or longer, and as we age work becomes one of the most gratifying things we do. But employers just don’t see it this way.
I was surprised to read an incredible story of age discrimination that shows that 90% of people who lose work in their 50s never make as much money as they did before they left. Why? Employers simply do not want them back.
Companies like Darden Restaurants are now being sued for this. Recruiters have been caught saying things like “you’re too old for this job” or “we only hire people with less than seven years of experience.” Even Facebook has been forced to remove “age” as a criterion for job placements in its online advertisements.
But those are the ones who do it explicitly. In most companies, age discrimination is much more subtle. Older people have higher salaries, so they are just passed over for many positions.
All This Is About To Change
While I have seen this effect take place among my peers and in my own career, I think the issue of age discrimination is about to change. Not only does it fly in the face of most diversity and inclusion programs in companies, but we really need these people around. With the unemployment rate at 30-year lows, companies are now starting to bring older people back to work.
The most interesting trend is what is often called “re-careering” programs – companies that invite retirees back to work, give them training and new skills, and let them work part time. Boeing, Bank of America, and Apple have already done this, and I encourage all employers to invest this way.
While many of us think of older people as “less capable” or perhaps “slower” than their younger peers, this entire idea is based on marketing developed in the 1950s when Del Webb and others started “marketing retirement” as a way to sell new homes. I won’t get into the details of this history, but I encourage you to read “The Longevity Economy” if you really want to understand the story.
Remember also that the single biggest buying population in the world is baby boomers. This workforce segment has as much disposable income as the rest of the population combined, and they want to do business with organizations that respect and understand that age is not a bad thing.
I’ll be doing a lot more research on this topic in the coming months, and it’s a huge theme of our upcoming Wellbeing at Work program in the Josh Bersin Academy.
Think about your company’s attitudes about age. Tenured workers are often more stable, they understand how to work in teams, and they are likely to be more loyal over time. Generational diversity is just good citizenship – and now it’s a competitive advantage as well.
If you have an example of a program that honors age in your company, I’d like to hear about it – now is the time to make generational diversity one of our hallmarks for the years ahead.