Aging is not a new phenomenon. The life cycle of birth, maturation and death is a given. So why are employers only now talking about age in the workplace? Because demographics, combined with a shift in employer/employee power dynamics, have left companies scurrying to find talent and negotiate new ways of working with existing employees.
This dynamic duo is redefining workplace culture. Part of the new script is removing age factors in employment decisions. Companies are scrambling to find and retain employees willing to engage and contribute.
That’s good news for workers of all ages.
Retiring Outdated Concepts
As far back as 1987, the Hudson Institute warned the U.S. Government and industries that if the U.S. were to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, addressing the aging workforce, along with race and gender integration, was a critical challenge requiring action.
Twenty-eight years later, a survey of global CEOs revealed that only 64 percent had diversity and inclusion strategies. Of those, only eight percent included (or were considering including) age as part of their strategy.
Meanwhile, countries worldwide report increased longevity and decreased birth rates, a reality that will continue for decades. People are living longer, healthier lives. They often want or need to work longer. However, societal views of older people in the workplace remain stuck in the past, resulting in the exclusion of older talent in recruitment, training, promotions, and retention.
Demographics do not morph overnight, so why exclude talent–young and old–when future labor trends are so clearly articulated?
One of the most significant reasons is the retirement fallacy–the idea that everyone over a certain age should be ready and willing to step out of the workforce. Economically speaking, the concept of retirement is no longer representative of most older workers. Except for veterans and other government workers, very few workers have access to pensions. That leaves retirement savings, yet, one survey found that one-third of Americans have not saved anything, and 55% have less than $10,000. That’s a far cry from the secret million-dollar formula suggested as the figure needed to supplement social security to maintain a middle-class way of life.
That means folks need to work longer to reach their financial goals. However, societal views of older people in the workplace have led to exclusion and discrimination. In some industries, such as advertising and media, exclusion can begin before age 40.
In 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Social Security Act, the average life expectancy was 61. Today, almost half a million people are aged 100 and older. Projections suggest as many as 3.7 million centenarians worldwide by 2050.
That translates to a 60- to 80-year work life!
A Flexible and Agile Workplace
The shift in demographics is only part of the current driving change. Another major contributor is employees claiming their power during the pandemic. Under the unprecedented and unrelenting stress of getting work done and increased family responsibilities as schools closed and family members battled social isolation and illness, workers began pushing back with a collective no more.
Like ripples that begin across a quiet lake after the pebble is tossed into the water, employees drew hard, fast lines in the sand–followed by resignation when employers cross the line. As the ripples expanded, other employees gained inspiration and followed suit.
That’s how movements begin. It’s how cultural change begins.
Now, companies are scrambling to understand and manage the delicate balance between employer wants and employee needs. It also means their concept of the perfect employee has evaporated.
Instead of establishing rigid parameters for what they are looking for, they’ve had to become more flexible in what they are willing to accept. In other words, desperation for talent has left them no choice but to open wide the applicant pool.
No longer are companies automatically dismissing younger applicants lacking experience. Now they are more willing to bring on employees ready to learn. Instead of considering older workers as being on their way out the door, they are providing opportunities that will keep them working longer. In other words, companies are paying more attention to the dynamics of age and aging in the workplace and prioritizing necessary actions to attract and retain all-aged talent.
It’s not just older workers who want and need retraining; it is workers of all ages. A 2020 Future of Work study made it clear with the speed of technology change that, on average, employers expect to offer reskilling and upskilling to just over 70% of their employees by 2025. For employers and employees, this training is paramount to creating a flexible and agile workplace capable of keeping up with the pace of change.
Bending to the Need
It takes a lot to shift culture, but nothing triggers change faster than need. Consider how quickly companies moved to a remote workforce. They made it work, but it was all predicated on necessity.
Talent is becoming a scarce resource. That creates a non-negotiable need. Bending to the demand for talent is opening the doors of opportunity–including continued working versus forced redundancy–for many workers over 50.
Now progressive companies are looking to create a work culture where all ages want to age in–and stay in. That means looking beyond outdated retirement norms to fill the gaps. It also requires an understanding of the impact of longevity–not only for older workers but for the younger ones coming up behind them.
By Sheila Callaham
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