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Creating a Culture for the Gray Wave of Workers
Published Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When 59 year-old Pamela White got the news in 2011 that her job as a safety and health consultant at Liberty Mutual in Dover was being outsourced, she was stunned. “It was extremely life altering,” says White, “because I could have seen myself there for the rest of my [professional career].”

Despite her impressive credentials, including a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in adult and health education, White wondered if her career had received a death knell. And she had reason for concern. According to a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts, workers over the age of 55 who’ve lost their jobs are more likely than any other age category to remain jobless for a year or more.

As White went on job interviews, she says no one overtly discriminated against her because of her age. But she easily interpreted the quick gazes at her gray locks and mature appearance. “You feel that maybe you weren’t the candidate chosen because they didn’t see longevity in you.”

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare the New Organizational Order,” says that White’s job-hunting experience is not unique. And yet, it presents an often misunderstood irony, because the same managers who discriminate against older workers are also seeking people with the strong work ethic and expertise that only senior-level personnel can deliver.

Businesses who ignore mature workers will also be missing out on a growing segment of the workforce. State economists predict that the population over age 60 is growing faster than any other age segment. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, may account for 26 percent of the NH population by 2030, an increase of almost 40 percent from 2012.

Smashing Stereotypes

Some discrimination arises from stereotypes that older workers are more costly, less adaptable, and less motivated, says Cappelli. All of which, he says, couldn’t be further from the truth.

For one thing, explains Cappelli, an employee’s age doesn’t inflate salaries; experience level does. Therefore, a 35 year old with 10 years of experience will command a higher salary than a 55 year old with fewer skills.

And when it comes to health insurance, older workers may file more health claims, but they don’t typically cover as many dependents as their younger counterparts or receive maternity benefits, making their overall coverage less expensive, Cappelli says. Additionally, employees over the age of 65 are covered under the federal Medicare program, further lowering medical costs.

Some people perceive that older workers aren’t as nimble with technology. Yet, computers have been in the workplace since the 1980s, and with technology quickly evolving, everyone requires additional training to keep up. That’s why a recent engineering graduate with MATLAB skills is still going to need the same retraining that a former FORTRAN programmer needs, except the latter has more experience adapting to technology changes, and may do so with less anxiety. 

Finding Common Ground

Among those the AARP surveyed between the ages of 50 and 70, around 80 percent say they are working to stay mentally and physically engaged. More than two-thirds say they work so they can contribute to society.

It is this kind of work ethic and values that appeal to organizations like the Concord-based Granite State Independent Living (GSIL), which promotes independence for seniors and people with disabilities. Around half the staff of 105 employees is over the age of 50, including Pamela White.

Like many in midlife, White reentered the workforce after a career switch and a three-month job search. After stints as a registered nurse at companies and as a corporate safety consultant, she became the director of quality and compliance for GSIL, where she reviews records and manages policies and procedures.

While she didn’t plan for a mid-life shake up, the adrenalin it sparked keeps her sharp. White, whose 87-year-old mother suffers from dementia, is grateful she landed in a corporate culture that encourages employees to take time off to care for their elders. Last-minute emergencies sometimes cause her to slip away, but GSIL accommodates her needs.

Mara Olisky is the human resources director at GSIL and former president of the Human Resources Association of Greater Concord. A mother of two small children, she says that workplace flexibility ranks high for employees of all ages and within various types of organizations. For older workers, that often means caring for ailing parents or spending time with grandchildren.

At GSIL, up to four generations interact regularly, and not always without conflict. Yet, they learn from each other. “It infuriates me if I see people texting in a meeting or looking at a cell phone instead of paying attention,” says Sue Fortier, who is 64 and vice president of human resources. “Whether you want to call it multi-tasking, I still say it’s rude.” Companies need to establish rules of etiquette, says Olisky, which respect different generational viewpoints and strengths.

Fortier admits she deliberates before accepting technological trends or upgrades, such as the company’s new electronic scanning system that virtually eliminates paper in the office. Yet on the other hand, Olisky says that Fortier’s hesitancy emanates from wisdom, and as a team, they are less likely to make hasty decisions. “Sue and I balance each other out,” says Olisky.

Fitting in to Youth Culture

Unlike the GSIL, the Portsmouth-based International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP)—with offices that include funky art, ping pong tables, and dogs accompanying their owners to work—employs only a handful over the age of 50 out of its 70 workers.

Among them is Sales Director Dick Soule, who is of retirement age, and like many of his contemporaries, needs to rebuild the nest egg he lost in the downturn. He’s happy to be working and says, “The energy in the place helps me feel younger than I would otherwise.” And he reminds his rookie colleagues who’ve never worked anywhere else, “just how good they have it.” Soule says he also finds himself in the role of sage or stress-buster, assuring his team that challenges, no matter how large, can be overcome.

Among the perks he enjoys most is not having to track vacation or sick time as the nonprofit does not set a limit on time off. Working with their supervisors, employees take the time they need. Soule is planning to visit his two grandchildren in Philadelphia for an upcoming weekend. He won’t decide until the last minute whether to return Sunday or Monday. “The opportunity to not feel guilty or not count days is important to my wife and me.”

Respondents to the Age & Generations Study conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College underscored that flexible work options contribute to employee success “to a great extent.” And in focus groups with the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, older workers highlighted benefits unrelated to income and health insurance. They voiced an interest in “making a contribution, and keeping social connections.”

Engaging Mature Workers

Employers across the spectrum, from manufacturing and retail to health and education, are finding that older employees offer highly marketable skills and strong work ethics. As baby boomers face living longer and relying less on shrinking retirement funds, companies need to understand what keeps this valuable human resource productive and happy.

In a NH-based AARP survey, 87 percent of those over 50 say they plan to work long past retirement age. Some will work out of financial necessity, but many will work by choice. Still others will retire and bounce back into encore careers or as part-time consultants.

In 2003, around 86,000 Granite Staters between the ages of 55 and 64 were employed in the civilian, non-institutional workforce, says researcher Annette Nielson of NH’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau. By 2012, that number grew to 131,000, and is expected to climb even higher.

Just as American corporations adapted to rapidly changing technologies, a volatile economy, and greater diversity among employees, so too will they acclimate to an increasingly older workforce.

To keep these mature workers engaged, Cappelli says businesses need policies that nurture a culture where opinions are valued, schedules are flexible enough to care for family members, opportunities abound to develop social relationships, and employees can contribute to a greater good.

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