Recruiting and retaining older workers

by 17 Apr 2007

We live in the best of times. Despite the daily bombardment of bad news from the media, we’re safer than ever before, we live longer and healthier lives, we’re better educated and more affluent.

According to CNN’s Life Expectancy Calculator, a forty-two-year-old like me who is mainly sedentary but in decent shape – despite an imperfect diet – can expect to live to 92 or better. My wife, who is a little younger and has the advantage of being female (and less volatile) will probably live past 100.

It all reminds me of the chorus from the Five For Fighting song, “100 Years”, which goes like this:

Forty-five, theres still time for you

Time to buy and time to lose

Forty-five, theres never a wish better than this

When you only got a hundred years to live

Okay, I changed the words a little. The song actually refers to 15-year-olds. As such, it is probably a fairly accurate prediction and one with big implications down the road.

Right now though, the number of 15-year-olds is declining in most of the world while the number of 45-year-olds is exploding.

The United Nations (never known for hyperbole) claims that the aging workforce is currently “one of the top three socio-economic issues facing the planet”. Consulting firm Watson Wyatt, in its 2006 Ageing Workforce Report, says “The greatest HR challenge of the coming decades will be to enhance workforce productivity as the availability of skilled workers declines.”

The same report warns that “accumulating sufficient assets by age 60 to enjoy a comfortable retirement for another 40 years will be very challenging. The only alternative will be to work longer, interspersed with periods of mid-life education and retraining to maintain employability.”

The key phrase here is: “The only alternative will be to work longer”. This is, in fact, the key to avoiding market contraction throughout North America, Europe, Australia and large parts of Asia over the next few decades.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014, some 78 million baby boomers will fall between the ages of 50 and 68. A more widely known stat, since debunked, is that there will be a 10 million worker shortage by 2010. Statistics like these have generated so much hype about workforce shortages that some in the press have taken to calling the problem “Grey2K.”

In his widely cited 2002 paper entitled “Will there really be a labour shortage”, professor Peter Cappelli, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argues forcefully that it won’t happen, largely because baby boomers who might have retired at 60 or 65 under normal conditions, will be persuaded to stay in the workforce, en masse, due to the opportunities and rewards available because of demand. Studies by the AARP support his theory.

In surveys involving thousands of baby boomers conducted in 1998 and 2004, 80 per cent and 79 per cent respectively said that they “plan to work in some capacity during their retirement years”.

Convincing older workers that they need to remain productive into their 60s, 70s and even 80s wouldn’t seem to be the challenge. Rather, organisations and society in general have to get better at making older workers want to work, even if they can afford to retire.

So far, we aren’t doing a good job of it. Ageism is an issue, particularly in the youth-obsessed US culture, but also in Australia and much of Europewhere the aging workforce is an even bigger problem.

Last year in October, the BBC-cited age as the most common form of discrimination in the workforce. The BBC was reporting on a new law introduced the same month by the British parliament, making it unlawful to discriminate against an employee under the age of 65 on the grounds of age.

Similar laws exist in other parts of Europe and North America, but they don’t change people’s attitudes. Necessity will eventually eliminate the problem but organisations shouldn’t wait until a crisis arises to start adding age to their diversity strategies.

Now is the time to start devising older-worker friendly policies like job flexibility and talking to critical employees who are nearing retirement about what it might take to keep them a few years longer.

The winners in the competition for the best of the baby boomers will be the ones that start early and develop a reputation as a great place for older workers.

The role of recruiters is changing to become a more thoughtful and strategic role, with the acquisition of older talent already becoming a vital component.

By Allan Schweyer, president of the Human Capital Institute