The Great Workplace Challenge: How to Make Better Use of Older Workers

Editor’s note: Sometimes, readers ask about past TLNT articles that they have heard about but may have missed. That’s why every Friday we’re republishing a Classic TLNT post that some of you have asked about.

By Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli

Why is it that we have such a hard time continuing to find work as we grow older, especially as employers complain about not being able to find workers with the right attitudes, who have the skills to “hit the group running,” and who can make immediate contributions?

One would think employers would be falling over themselves to retain older employees, to let them keep working in more flexible ways, and to hire other older workers. But they are not.

There may be many reasons why older workers are not able to find opportunities to keep working, but most of them have to do with misperceptions about older workers. These are so widespread yet without basis that they can be thought of as myths, and they include the following: older workers don’t perform as well as younger workers, they demand high pay and cost a lot more, they don’t want to change, they won’t take a step down in role, and so forth.

Discrimination against older workers is widespread — indeed, by most measures, greater than that confronting minorities and women.

Managing older works calls for a different approach

And the biggest obstacle in getting access to jobs lies with younger managers.

The biggest concern about hiring older workers expressed by employers is that conflicts would result when they are managed by invariably younger supervisors. An incredible 88 percent of employers worry about hiring older workers because of such conflicts. The heart of the difficulty of getting older workers into successful work relationships lies with the challenge of having younger managers supervise employees who are older than they are.

Research suggests conclusively that both younger managers and their older subordinates distrust each other and that negative attributions on both sides are common — although frankly much more common among younger supervisors than older subordinates. The cause appears to have less to do with the age differences per se and more to do with the difference in experience and the way in which younger managers try to supervise their more experienced subordinates.

Managing older workers, therefore, requires a different approach. It is not one that is untested, however, and it conforms to many of the contemporary ideas about effective leadership, from the military down to start-up firms: communicate clearly about issues and challenges, involve employees in decisions, delegate tasks, and recognize contributions. Above all, acknowledge what the older subordinates know.

Management practices for older subordinates

Older workers are a tremendous asset for almost any organization. In terms of work ethic, absenteeism, and turnover, they score better than their younger peers. But they are not identical to their younger colleagues.

In particular, their reasons for working are often different and can lead to mismatches with the management practices of many employers. Beyond the interaction with supervisors, older workers benefit from a somewhat different employment model, although it is not so different that it need shake the basic assumptions of the organization.

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Many and arguably most large employers motivate employees with money, with promises of promotions and career advancement, and at least implicitly with the fear of being fired if they don’t perform. None of these factors matter as much to older individuals, who are near the end of their career.

Attracting and then engaging the older workforce begins with a different and distinctive value proposition that includes giving greater importance to a sense of mission; serving a social purpose or at least one that goes beyond simply making money for shareholders; offering flexibility in terms of work schedules; and offering greater choice in benefits that might include some targeted to older individuals (e.g., elder care insurance along with day care programs).

Extending the working life of your employees

An interesting point about the above list is that it is not unlike a list we would see generated to attract young workers. In fact, the interests of older and younger employees are highly similar. Perhaps it is those in the middle who represent the more unusual case.

More generally, employers interested in making better use of the mature workforce should begin with opportunities to extend the working life of their own employees. Some companies expand these opportunities to alumni of their organization, those who may have left before retirement. And a few novel arrangements have developed where companies make their retirees available to each other, effectively swapping them back and forth.

Overall, efforts to make better use of older individuals in the workplace represent one of the greatest opportunities available for improving society. It is about the only way to provide the resources necessary to pay for longer lives; it helps address exactly the needs employers say they have for a skilled, just-in-time workforce; and it provides some of the best opportunities for older individuals to stay active and engaged.

The arguments are so compelling that they may seem inevitable. The question is simply how long it will take and whether your organization wants to be at the front of that trend, getting the benefits first, or losing out by trailing behind. This book tells you how to get on board.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order by Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. He is the author of Talent on Demand, The New Deal at Work, and coauthored The India Way. Contact him at Bill Novelli is the former CEO of AARP and the author of Fifty Plus: Give Meaning and Purpose to the best time of Your Life.


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