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Desk Cleanup of Aging Items

Corporate America Needs Older Workers

[EDITOR'S NOTE] Melanie McBride at Chandrasutra is running a series of interviews titled "The Bloggers' Bloggers" and I am pleased to be included."

category_bug_ageism.gif In a recent piece in Fortune magazine, writer Anne Fisher notes:

“Intent on cutting costs, many employers are trying to get rid of people over 50, despite rising age-discrimination litigation…They’ll probably regret it before long, since demographics suggest that business is facing a dangerous brain drain from voluntary retirements alone. And those folks’ lost smarts can cost an awful lot to replicate."
- Fortune, 7 March 2005

Ms. Fisher gives an astonishing illustration (which you and I will pay for) of the costliness:

“Consider the chilling example of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Way back in the 1960s it spent $24 billion (in 1969 dollars) - and at one point employed 400,000 people - to send 12 astronauts to the moon.

“But in the 23 years since the Apollo program ended, the engineers who carried crucial know-how in their heads, without ever passing it on to colleagues, have retired or died (or both). At the same time, important blueprints were catalogued incorrectly or not at all, and the people who drew them are no longer around to draw them again.

“So to fulfill the Bush administration's promise to return to the moon in the next decade, NASA is essentially starting all over again. Estimated cost to taxpayers in current dollars: $100 billion.”

Anticipating a massive departure of older workers in the next half decade or so and fearing that younger managers won’t have the chops to take over, a few large corporations, according to Ms. Fisher, have implemented a variety of programs to capture the knowledge of their older employees before they leave. Among them:

  • Mentoring – of limited value because it transfers only one person’s knowledge

  • Communities of Practice – company-wide groups of varying ages that meet regularly

  • Action Learning Teams – cross-discipline groups where young managers are exposed to big projects and issues

All well and good, but as Ms. Fisher points out, the best way to pass on knowledge is to stop laying off older workers before their time.

Nevertheless, there is a hole in this otherwise excellent story. It ignores the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of older workers laid off in the past five years or more who are still healthy, still smart, still knowledgeable and desperately looking for work in their fields of expertise.

Not all knowledge is corporation-specific. Engineers know how to engineer, lawyers how to lawyer and even website builders like me still know how to do that better than kids just out of college. And one of the best things about getting older is the desire to pass on what we have learned in our long careers. I know from personal experience the pleasure of watching younger colleagues improve their skills and start to fly on their own. The satisfaction is enormous, and we’re dying out here (almost literally) wanting to be productive.

That we are not is attributable only to ageism and its illegal subsidiary, age discrimination. Okay, we’re not as pretty or handsome as the younger folks, but corporate America had better get over it. There are a lot of us and they are going to need us - soon.

Bob Corcoran, GE’s chief learning officer who is quoted in the Fortune story, has seen the future of business and knows it works:

“He envisions a future, not far away, in which ‘people aged 65 to 80 will share a job with someone else or work core hours, ten to three, or work part-time and take extended leaves to share their expertise with nonprofits.’ He says GE has offered those options to employees in mid-career for more than a decade now, and "these people have produced great results for us.”

Thank you to Kyrielle for alerting me to this Fortune story.


Admittedly, I have no knowledge of how things work outside science/technology, but there is another side to the story of our failing to hand down critical knowledge in those fields. In some cases, we older employees just didn't, for various reasons, want to do that. It was always one of my major goals, in each new engineering/management position, to train the workers in my organization to the point where I was superfluous. Otherwise, I could never leave. And I get bored fairly easily, so I never wanted to stay in one place for life. On the other hand, my Elder Brother worked in a critical-knowledge engineering field, but hated working with younger engineers. When he retired (voluntarily) at age 57, he took all of his knowledge with him. For a few years, the laboratory brought him back as a contractor for a few days each month (his choice) to pass along his knowledge. They finally gave up the vane hope--knowledge was not being transferred. It's been a few years since they called him back and I'm sure that by now the younger engineers have figured things out for themselves. I'm hoping.

In addition, there is a silver lining to the "new" space program. It may not be as economically efficient to build our new space race from "scratch", rather than on the old, but I'm convinced that the program's contributions to humanity will be greater by starting over. New mistakes will be made, no doubt, but new avenues of inquiry will be found that will produce techniques, knowledge, and products useful to the general populous. (And, mistakes in science/engineering are frequently opportunities.)

I’m less inclined to put the productivity of older workers in contest with younger workers by thinking that either one of them is better than the other – what is needed, I think, is to realize that there is market advantage to be realized at every stage of a worker’s life. I read Cop Car’s comments to be highlighting this point of view as well. New learning is new opportunity for “glorious failures” from which great opportunities arise. Your work here, Ronni, has made me more alert in discussions addressing workers of age, so it was with interest that I followed the links from a recent NewYorkTimes story to the AARP’s listing of age-friendly employers . The Times highlighted only a couple of the employers listed here, but both pieces are worth the read. There is certainly a long way to go before parity in employment opportunity/compensation is a norm in the marketplace, but as you point out, Ronni, time is on our side. With the aging of the American population, it is only a matter of time … and there’s poetry in that thought for me.

Many years ago, my Dad, who was a maintenance supervisor for Union Carbide used to complain about "kids"just out of college coming into his department and trying to solve every problem with a textbook on engineering. He said he had more practical knowledge in him little finger than all of them had in their whole bodies (let alone brains). They retired him at age 62 just because he had reached 30 years of continuous service, along with many other men in his same age group. Shortly thereafter, the whole area went to hell in a hand basket, as they say. They would have done well to have kept some of the oldies around!

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