Older workers – those who are at or approaching the traditional retirement age of 65 – are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce and one of the fastest-growing groups in the overall population. In the U.S. the number of individuals aged 65 or older will increase by about 66% between now and 2035.
These changing demographics will transform the U.S. labor market and society as a whole. Any employer who wants to engage a skilled, motivated and disciplined work force cannot afford to ignore them.
Yet these workers are being ignored to some extent. About three quarters of individuals approaching retirement have for some time said that they would like to keep working in some capacity, yet only about a quarter of them actually do.
So, why aren’t we seeing more older employees in the work force? The problem seems to be getting them in the door in the first place. Discrimination is certainly one reason. Evidence suggests that we are more biased in our views of older individuals than we are of minorities and women.
The other challenge is fear. Younger supervisors are often afraid of managing older employees because these older workers have more experience than they do. The less experienced managers may wonder, “How can I say, ‘Do this because I know best’ when often I don’t know best?” Older workers may also have some initial trouble being managed by younger supervisors, especially those with less practical experience than they have. But it’s up to supervisors to shape the relationship beginning with the first interaction by saying how they want to use the older worker’s experience, while pointing out what their own responsibilities are for setting goals and holding people accountable.
It’s not just a confidence issue. Younger supervisors may find that what works with most of their staff doesn’t work for older employees. They aren’t as fearful of being fired (they’re already at retirement age) and they have less interest in promotions or a big payout in the future.
So how do you keep an older worker engaged? Start by acknowledging and using their experience. Certainly this is true for any age group: Everyone wants their expertise to be recognized, especially by the boss. But with older workers, it’s even more important, because they typically have a lot of experience – so ignoring it is especially irritating. And older workers themselves can be prickly about being managed by someone who knows less than they do.
In the workplace, it’s useful to check in with individual older workers to ask them what problems they could foresee in executing a specific task (“Here’s what we need done”). If you don’t take any advice they offer, it’s helpful to explain why not (“I know it’s an aggressive deadline, but it’s important to finish this before the new manager takes over”).
The bottom line is that companies looking to increase engagement, performance, and loyalty need to do a much better job of engaging this growing – and valuable – segment of the workforce. For employers who say they want a work force that can “hit the ground running,” that doesn’t need training or ramp-up time to figure out what to do, that will be conscientious and that knows how to get along with others, older workers are the perfect match.
(Peter Cappelli is a professor of management at the Wharton School and the author of several books, including his latest, “The India Way.”)
© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate