Insights

Advice and thoughtful leadership from our experts.

Should Companies Really Hire Older Workers?

 

By Steve Nail, JD, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, RCC

A recent Harris poll reported that 31% of retirees are eager to return to work due to inflation and concern about their financial futures. But should organizations hire older workers, those 55, or more years old? Certainly, for experienced Human Resources professions, they know that ageism and stereotyping of older workers, is very common in many organizations. In fact, most would say it is by far the most common form of discrimination in the workplace. After all, age transcends all races, religions, sexes, and ethic groupings, and all of us will be “old”, if we live long enough. The dirty little secret in corporate America, which no one will openly admit is, age discrimination is generally accepted, even if not intended. Many think older workers are slower, less technically competent, untrainable, less engaged, and generally too old fashion to make it in the workplace of today. They are relics with nothing “new” to contribute. Who believes this? Boomers in the 60’s and 70’s often said in their youth, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Millennials continue that sentiment, often heard using the phrase “OK Boomer”, to connote their antipathy with whatever the older Boomer is suggesting or referring to, as being behind the times.

Untapped Workforce. The truth is older workers can be a great resource to many organizations. Specifically, older workers often have very good skill sets based upon their years of experience. These are not just job skills; they often have those “soft skills” employers claim to desire. They are generally reliable and less likely to jump from employer to employer than younger workers. A 2020 academic article in the Journal of Business Diversity, co -authored by Dr. Stephanie K. Douglas and Dr. Robin A. Roberts, found that older workers, those 63 years and older had higher levels of workplace engagement than any younger age groupings. Many older workers make great mentors to younger workers, particularly regarding strategic thinking, navigating corporate politics within organizations, and the intricacies of the job that take years of experience to acquire. Another advantage, is the fact that many older workers are positive advocates for the employer and can help younger employees realize that the “grass is not always greener on the other side” to a generation of workers not known for staying in one yard. With these obvious advantages of employing older workers, and most organizations struggling to find workers, more focus on this demographic may provide a competitive business advantage and better workforce resource investment.

To capitalize on this generally untapped resource, it is important to understand this often-overlooked employee demographic and their motivations. A 2019 academic study, published in the Human Resource Management Journal, authored by Dr. Julia M. Kensbock, among others, found the following motivated young versus old workers:

Younger Workers Motivators

  • Money/Compensation
  • Acquiring New Skills
  • Gaining Knowledge
  • Getting Experience

Older Workers Motivators

  • Maintaining Positive Emotions
  • Deeper Meaning and Satisfaction
  • Tasks Contribution
  • Guiding and Promoting the Next Generation
  • Accomplishment/Achievement

While organizations spend many thousands of dollars attempting to understand, appeal to, and retain the younger generations of workers, little if any, is spent to understand the older generation of workers. After all, how many seminars have you ever been to that focus on attracting and retaining older workers? How many job fairs have you been to where the focus was on older workers?

Workplace Consideration for Hiring Older Workers? Some relevant considerations are:

1) Stress Abatement. Leaders need to understand what factors dominate the retirement thought process in the first place. I’ve interviewed dozens of people who have either retired, or are planning to retire soon, to ascertain their rationale. Almost to a person, it is due to the “stresses” in the workplace and their fatigue with dealing with those stresses. Specifically, working long hours, last minute exigence’s, and having to manage people. Often, research suggest older workers also leave a stressful relationship with a manager, or there has been a change in company policy, which they find onerous. This is something any employer interested in hiring an older, or previously retired person, should consider. It’s not that they can’t work under stress, it’s that they have been fatigued by it after years of doing it, and very much want to avoid it going forward. Therefore, to stay content in whatever role they are hired into, organizations should attempt to place older workers in positions which minimize these stressors.

2) Right Role. The job leaders place the older worker in is very important. Most older workers want to feel valued and that their role contributes to the overall good of the organization. They want to make sure that their years of experience have currency in the organization. However, organizations should not feel compelled to necessarily place older employees in the same level of position which they previously held. In fact, many older employees returning to the workforce don’t really want such positions. For example, rather than managing people, many older workers prefer individual contributor roles, where they don’t have to constantly be available to resolve subordinate’s issues, which often interfere with work production and increases the number of daily hours worked. Similarly, most older employees do not expect the same pay as when they were in the higher-pressure positions of their earlier career, although they want to be paid fairly for the work they are tasked to perform.

3) Schedule Flexibility. Time and flexibility of the work, or lack thereof, is another reason many individuals decide to retire. Often overlooked, or seldom taken seriously enough by organizations, flexibility is a factor in resignations. While it is difficult to practice restraint in this era of the “Great Resignation”, organizations would be well advised to do so and maintain productivity, by retaining workers. Part-Time, or even job-sharing arrangements could prove invaluable to organizations, if properly executed. Even in hourly manufacturing positions, having older workers share jobs, or work part time, could offer a financial and productivity boost. For example, one worker working 3 days per week and another working two days per week, while being effectively one full-time equivalent, may actually be less of a financial burden on the organization, since there would likely be no overtime if one, or both, of the employees worked more than their standard hours in a given workweek, and there would likely be no, or little, healthcare and other benefits for the part-time workers.

4) Knowledge, Time, and Wisdom. Mentorship and knowledge transfer opportunities are more readily available when older workers can be retained or hired. A major problem facing almost every organization is the “why and/or how” of processes, procedures, unwritten rules, solutions, and successful results. There is no substitute for experience and years of acquired knowledge, and the longer the next generation of workers can learn from the previous the better. How often, when a senior employee, with decades of experience retires, do remaining personnel realize no one knows how to accomplish what needs to be accomplished? At one of my past employers, I developed and wrote a part time-to-retirement policy, which allowed employees to work reduced schedules, for up to five years, with pay equal to the number of hours worked, allowing employees to ease, or bridge, into full-time retirement, while at the same time passing on their knowledge to the next generation of employees. That same company, also has a program where retirees can come back and work on projects that the full-time workforce does not have time to perform. Both programs have been wildly successful in a multitude of ways, including improving morale of the existing workforce, a smoother knowledge transfer, smoothing out the ebb and flow of work, and getting work projects completed in a timelier manner. In essence, hiring retired workers can provide knowledge sharing, experience and time that is a workforce and operational effectiveness multiplier.

5) Communicate, Communicate and Communicate. Regular “check ins” or stay interviews are highly recommended for long term, successful, engagement of the older workforce. Like the interactive discussions, conducted in other employment contexts, it is important for organizations to talk to older workers to first let them know how appreciated they are and how important they are to the organization’s success. It is also important to listen to these employees and determine what role(s) these workers wish to perform, what kind of schedule works best for them and how satisfied they are with their current work arrangement. Also, just like in a stay interview, it is important to inquire as to what circumstances would cause them to leave, so the organization can avoid those circumstances. HR should make sure those managing the older workers understand clearly the role, work to be done and scheduling boundaries so that “work creep” doesn’t occur, causing the older worker to return to the stress levels that create frustration with work, making it less interesting to continue.

There were 3.2 million people who retired in 2021 and for the past 10 years there have been an average of over 2 million per year, according to Insiderintelligence.com, which is a largely overlooked resource demographic. With 31% of retired employees considering a return to active employment, organizations which address this worker demographic and their needs and desires correctly, could have a big competitive advantage over their competitors.

Steve Nail is the Dean of the College of Business at Anderson University, where he teaches Strategic HR and Business Law courses. He is an attorney, certified HR professional, certified executive coach, HR consultant, and published author. He has devoted his career to HR thought leadership, creating innovative HR solutions, and educating and mentoring the next generation of HR leaders.