When I was invited to facilitate a group responsible for giving input to the President’s Council on aging in the 1990’s, one of the activities presented at the intergenerational conference was interesting. It told me a lot when it comes to “ageism” in the United States. It also showed me what it means to be an older team member.
For example in one intergenerational activity, participants from the age groups teenagers to the “White Panthers” were involved. We were asked to walk across a gymnasium floor like we imagined people would walk at a certain age. The ages we imagined were age five to eighty-five. Yes, there were skips and jumps at age five. By age 50, however, the younger participants imagined walking with canes. By 85, they were pushing one another in chairs. This told me then that how we imagine the older team member isn’t so much out of respect for their age, knowledge base or empathy but through the lense of age bias slanted toward youth.
The age challenge.
Take Rashon, 62, for example. Ranson is a dental services manager from Georgia who recently became his wife’s primary caregiver. He’s excellent at what he does and everyone loves him. But staying at work while caring for his wife diagnosed with Alzheimer’s wasn’t feasible. Could he work from home and come to the office weekly to lead team meetings?
Then there’s Pamela, the 56-year old nurse suffering from chronic lower back pain after years of physically demanding work. While she loves what she does, staying on the job to cover her mortgage and pay the bills is overwhelming. Are there other options available to her where she can use her nursing skills?
Rashon and Pamela are only two among millions of older workers who face similar challenges. As the number of older workers grows, so will the number of aging Americans with similar dilemmas. Should companies retain them? If they decide to rejoin the workforce, would you consider hiring someone with their background considering their ages?
The topic of the older team member is fodder for heated debate.
If it were up to me, I’d take the risk and hire them. Here’s why.
The older team member has exemplary skills, the necessary professional experience, and an admirable work ethic. Some employers have now taken the initiative to implement policies favoring the aging worker. From something as basic as providing assistive technology and equipment (ergonomic furniture) to establishing intergenerational training programs, flexible retirement paths, and caregiver support projects, it’s apparent that some US employers recognize the value the older team member brings to the table.
In a research paper published in December 2017 by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, here are some salient points to note:
The business case for age-friendly workplaces is strong.
Hiring and retaining older workers can help employers retain valuable skills, address workforce shortages, and increase workplace diversity, which can contribute to improved outcomes.
Most employers acknowledge the trend of the aging workforce; few are taking
While 80% of employer action.s say they are supportive of employees who plan to work past the age of 65, only 39% offer flexible scheduling options and only 31% facilitate processes for moving from full-time to part-time roles.
Current challenges make it more difficult for older workers to thrive in the workplace.
Age discrimination, inadequate training opportunities, working while managing health conditions and disabilities, balancing caregiving responsibilities with work, and preparing financially for retirement are among the main challenges facing an aging workforce.
Many establishments shun the idea of maintaining an aging workforce. Even though health insurance benefits can be picked up by Medicare for age 65 and over, health is a concern. Poor health means missed work. Mature employees are also thought to be less flexible and more rigid in their thinking and personal habits.
Here’s why hiring and retaining the older team member is a good idea.
People who are 50 years old and older are more likely to stay in a job LONGER than people who are between the ages of 25 to 35. And while “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, the same doesn’t hold true for majority of older members of the workforce. Thinking they are resistant to learning is a false stereotype.
In the course of conducting training, I find that the older team member has a robust work ethic. They arrive early for a shift and remain focused throughout the day (true even for physically-demanding and fast-paced activities). Older workers also possess empathy and make good coaches for employees going through life experiences that the older worker has already conquered. This is evident in small and medium-sized corporations. Many would go beyond their job description, despite a slump in sales and production, because they want to help bring business back. These are the discretionary actions many CEO’s yearn for.
I also find that older workers bring a prized level of critical thinking, experience, and life knowledge – aspects that cannot be taught without practice. In certain industries (embroiderers, cabinet/furniture makers, among many others), it may take decades to acquire the technical expertise needed to master a specialized skill. For instance, in non-profit organizations, relationships are valued. Familiarity with donors, how they want to be approached, or even what questions to ask, can make or break a relationship. It’s akin to playing an instrument. You can be taught to play the piano. But it takes years to play beautifully.
In the year 2014, the median duration of workers between the ages of 55 and 64 in all industries was 10.4 years. Compare this to workers ages 25 to 34 years old whose median tenure is around 3 years. (Figures presented from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
What about the new skills the older team member needs to acquire?
How do you keep older workers abreast with developments in technology? Business? Company culture?
The answer has always been training. This perceived gap can be overcome with soft-skills and hard skills training. Pairing weak and strong employees in tasks that require new skills have been proven to be effective.
Further, teams that work well are composed of multigenerational members. In a 2013 study conducted by Zwick, Göbel and Fries, evidence strongly suggests that mixed-aged teams in the workplace are significantly more productive than other teams with members of the same age.
But perhaps the best and most unexpected advantage of having older workers as part of your organization is how they attract business. Take Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. Older customers demand that only older workers prepare their orders as this contributes to an authentic New York experience. At Rudy’s Music Stop in SoHo, customers are of a wide age range that the management prefers employees who can connect and relate to all of them. Older employees are seen as valuable because they always represent a concept. In the Upper West Side Apple Store, for instance, older workers are intentionally and strategically placed near the entrance so those who are timid when it comes to technology, feel less anxious.
Indeed, there are solid and significant advantages to employing older team members in your organization. Health issues (such as Pamela’s) or even personal circumstances (such as Rashon’s) can be eased by remote work. If not, I find that flexible working hours still provide the needed gains that only older team members can bring.
If your organization seeks to harness camaraderie and empathy across a diverse team, our bespoke training at TIGERS is a good fit. Now more than ever, your organization needs a committed and engaged team with minimal internal conflict and a great company culture that allows for collaboration at all levels. Maximize your bottom line by clicking HERE to learn more.
Care to dig deeper into this conversation on the older team member?
The following resources take this conversation further:
- Do Boomers, Gen X and Millennial Employees Get Along?
- The Advantages of Older Workers
- Train Your Older Workers Effectively
- America’s Aging Workforce: Opportunities and Challenges
- Aging Workforce Report, US Senate
Copyright TIGERS Success Series, Inc. by Dianne Crampton
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