UNDERWOOD: Rethinking the older worker

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By Rick Underwood

In a recent conversation with a 60-something-year-old, the notion of retirement came up. The response was simply, “I will probably have to work until I take my last breath.”

The time has gone when many folks can look forward to a big party, a watch and a life of travel and relaxation in retirement. Most folks approaching what used to be retirement age in the mid-60s are revising their future plans.

There are many reasons times have changed:

  • People are living longer.
  • A large volume of baby boomers is now part of our population.
  • Retirement funds aren’t adequate.
  • Economy is uncertain.
  • People are healthier and more active.
  • People have a growing interest in making meaningful contributions through work.

Both good news and bad news is in this emerging trend.  Many seniors will continue to work into their 60s, 70s, and 80s, which will mean fewer job promotions and less entry-level positions for the younger workers.

Conversely, employers that learn to tap into this vital source of experienced workers – and, equally important, learn to accommodate whatever special considerations aging employees may require in order to continue their productivity – will be well ahead of the game in the coming years.


Myths of the older workforce

Although the changes mentioned above are evident, some perceptions about older workers are simply not true. In fact, these workers bring much strength to any organization. A few of these attributes are confirmed by research as follows:

  • Excellent judgment.
  • Experience.
  • High level of attendance and punctuality.
  • Low turnover.
  • High emotional IQs.

There is little evidence in research linking age and negative job performance. In fact, workers 55 and older were found to take fewer sick days. They were more loyal to their employers than employees 40 and under. And, finally, research shows that the health-care cost for the final two years of life is less when people live longer.

One of my favorite predictions is that by 2050, middle age will be 75 to 78!


Benefits of keeping older workers working

Harriet Hankin, author of The New Workforce, offers characteristics that provide some significant insights into older workers and what they might mean to organizations and planning for the future:

  • Older workers are not moving to the sunny south as much as in the past.  According to an AARP survey, 89 percent of respondents older than 55 wish to age in place.
  • As older workers stay local they can work for you.
  • For older workers money may be secondary to meaningful work and social interaction.
  • Older workers are often very well-educated.
  • Older workers, because of life experience, can see the big picture. They have lived through a lot of ups and downs in the economy and tend to trust the process of recovery. Where many younger workers only see the cause and effect relationships in the operation of an organization, older workers can see the complex systems view, which may lead to more productive decisions in addressing change.
  • Many older workers have worked in several jobs across the company. Wisdom comes with age and experience and is invaluable in providing insights into how to improve work processes.
  • Older workers possess knowledge of business basics that sometimes seem to elude younger workers. Secondary education often trains students to be entrepreneurs and technologically savvy but oftentimes does not make them able to run the day-to- day operations of a business.
  • Older workers make better team players. Unlike younger workers, the older employees tend to be less competitive and more consensus builders.
  • Older workers tend to be less distracted by “life”. Typically by this stage of life the older worker has fewer life forces pulling her away from a focus on work such as raising children, paying a mortgage, etc. He may be more willing and able to travel and work on special projects.
  • Older workers are more likely to be self-actualized and self-motivated. By senior age workers know who they are, what their strength and weaknesses are and, rather than needing constant feedback, are able to provide coaching and development needed by the younger team members.



It is obvious that the aging population will provide some challenges and opportunities far beyond pensions and gold watches. Hankin concludes that they will be a viable and vital constituency of the workforce.

The challenges will be to find creative ways to make sure these individuals are nurtured for their wisdom, experience, special skills and knowledge and work ethic in our organizations.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am one of these senior workers. Having made a brief argument for the older worker, I must add that organizations will do well to rethink how to revere and fully use every employee in every age group.