Summer 2006
Golden Oldies

Squeeze play

In their drive to find quality workers, employers are pressured by competing forces. People born at the end of World War II are now eyeing retirement, many in warmer climates. “We’re facing a huge exodus of people from the work force as the baby boomers retire,” says Ian Jacobsen, a workplace consultant in California.

Normally, one would expect younger prospects to rush into the vacuum. But the very baby boomers who are now retiring were the ones responsible for population growth tapering off. The result? Fewer younger people in their 20’s and 30’s to fill the employment breach. And women of any age, who in earlier days used to be the supplemental work force employers could draw from, are now at full employment as well, says Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics, a Houston consulting firm.

And that’s not all. The downshift in population is happening at a time when a fairly healthy economy has just about tapped out the talent market. “We’re living in the fullest employment era we’ve ever had,” says Kleiman. “And we cannot afford to lose any workers.”

For the first time, all of these forces are coming together to increase the demand for older workers. We’re entering a period in which the highest growth rate in the work force will be people ages 55 to 64. By 2015, according to the AARP, one in every five employees will be at least 55.

Keeping the old guard happy

As with any commodity, older employees get more valuable as they get scarcer. What can you do to keep them, and keep them happy? Workplace psychologists offer a four-step approach.

Eliminate stereotypes and age-ism. Be sure you and your supervisors aren’t biased toward youth. Everyone has to understand the value of older people in general, and older employees on the job. “Employers have to change their attitudes toward older workers,” says Harriet Hankin, president of CGI Consulting Group and author of The New Workforce (Amacom, 2004). “Researchers have discovered no evidence of a link between age and [negative] job performance.” In fact, she says, “It turns out that older workers have a stronger commitment to quality, experience lower turnover, take fewer days off, are not as tardy, and have excellent judgment based on years of experience.” And recent studies by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) found that in comparison with their younger counterparts, older workers had a higher level of commitment to the organization. What employer could ask for more?

Motivate them. Although younger workers may be easy to motivate with higher salaries and chances at advancement, these may not be big motivators for older workers. Important, yes, but not usually the driving force. Instead, older workers as a rule “need to feel respected, appreciated and supported,” says Jacobsen. “[These qualities] are especially important when people are no longer working strictly for economic reasons. When work is competing with family interests and leisure pursuits, the psychic rewards become paramount for retention and motivation.” In other words, if they’re not in it for the money, employees can walk away any time to concentrate on grandkids, or hobbies or travel—or a job that suits them better. Thus, employers need to make the job worthwhile in other ways if they want to motivate and keep those valuable older employees.

So if money alone doesn’t motivate an older worker, what does? The best way to find out, says Kleiman, is to ask: Why do you want to keep working? Be prepared for surprises. An AARP survey (aarp.org) found that 94 percent of workers over age 45 most desired a friendly work environment. Also in the top 10 percent (respondents were permitted to give more than one answer) was the desire to: gain respect from co-workers (90 percent); opportunities to use their skills and talents (94 percent); do something worthwhile (91 percent); learn something new (88 percent); help others (86 percent); and pursue something they’ve always wanted to do (75 percent).

The survey answers paint a picture of a productive population that wants to stay busy, be productive, contribute, keep learning, and experience new things. They also point to some fundamental differences in motivation between younger and older workers. So it’s in the best interest of every employer or manager to periodically check to see if older employees are getting the rewards and satisfaction they want. Make it a point to return to the subject with them time and again. Their feedback will give employers the valuable information needed to keep older employees happy in their jobs, and the specific motivation that makes each of them want to stay.

Introduce flexible policies. Flexible schedules and phased retirement can work well, says Jacobsen. Older employees who want or need more time away from work may welcome part-time schedules—especially when they’re allowed to keep employer-sponsored health insurance. (Important: Be sure to clear this or any medical-policy changes with your insurance carrier and with your attorney, to avoid age discrimination.) Flexibility demonstrates respect for older workers’ needs and concerns.

Resolve conflicts with younger supervisors or managers. Conflicts may arise when older staffers report to younger managers. Move quickly to resolve these relationship issues if they come up. Jacobsen has suggestions for two common scenarios:

Scenario 1: The new boss is very young. Tom, a 20-year old, will now be managing 53-year-old Bob. What to do: Tom should set up a one-on-one meeting with Bob early on, to get to know him and ask what matters to Bob in their relationship. Tom should also ask Bob to describe the best boss he ever worked for and the worst, and what each did to earn that reputation. Tom needs to explain what he can do to make Bob’s work-life easier and explain what’s important to Tom as a boss and his expectations of Bob.

Tom should then schedule feedback sessions, weekly then monthly, and convey his respect and appreciation of Bob’s contributions. If problems arise, Tom should explain what he believes happened, ask for Bob’s take on the situation, and work with him to correct it. With this approach, Tom can show that he’s a reasonable person to work for, no matter how young.

Scenario 2: Young boss hears rumors. Jen, a 30-something manager, hears rumors that Anne, a 50-something staffer, doesn’t like working for Jen because she’s so young. What to do: Because Jen hasn’t heard this from Anne, Jen shouldn’t confront her about it. Instead, she should but meet with Anne to get feedback on how things are going, with questions like, “How am I doing? What do I do that makes your job easier? More difficult? What can I to help you do your job? What other changes do you think I should make?”

Then, as in Scenario 1, Jen should set follow up meetings to find out how things are going. If the rumors persist, Jen should talk to Anne again, to determine what else can she do to earn Anne’s respect as a manager.

If the rumors continue after that, Jen should explain that Anne can’t stay on staff if she still feels so negatively—that it’s affecting not only Anne’s work but also staff morale and productivity.

Through the years

In both scenarios, communication and mutual respect are key. Employers of any age who fail to create work environments that are friendly to older staffers will find the older ones jumping ship for employers who do.

“There’s no reason why older and younger workers can’t get along when they respect each other,” says Jacobsen. “It’s important to communicate your respect and care for the other person, and the fact that you want to improve the relationship.” When communication is clear and sincere, age ceases to be an issue.

Employers who value their older workers as much as their younger ones—and who understand the benefits of the knowledge, experience, wisdom, and even the sense of humor the extra years bring—will have a larger pool of talent to draw from, and a more diverse, motivated and productive work force.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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